In the finest tradition of British filmmaking, Belle is more or less single-handedly saved by its actors. It's not that there's anything precisely wrong with Amma Asante's script - which is credited to Misan Sagay because of a whole WGA arbitration thing that makes a bit of sense until you step back to ask the fateful question, "Wait, so why is the Writers Guild of America weighing in on the credits of an entirely British production?" - nor with Asante's direction. Both are perfectly sturdy, capably harnessed into producing a fact-based costume drama of politics and domestic life in the 18th Century that strikes all the notes which such a genre film ought to strike to appeal to the sorts of people who care about them. Belle does, perhaps, put its political context a bit more front-and-center than the great majority of such films would ever even daydream about doing. And it has a tendency to do this in the form of dialogue which finds every last character announcing rather unambiguously articulated - indeed, over-articulated - opinions on the status of race relations in the England of 1781. Think of it as an episode of Crashterpiece Theatre.

But then this very traditional and maybe a little inflexible costume drama gets populated by a murderer's row of the best and brightest actors the British Isles have to offer, and something almost like a miracle happens, and the thing starts to crackle with life and personality. Matthew Goode starts things off with a part that can't even hit the five-minute mark before he departs, leaving nothing but the sense that all movies are better when they've had some Matthew Goode happen to them; then come Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, and Miranda Richardson to hold things down on the endlessly reliable workhorse end of things, while Canadian import Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton (playing what amounts to a periwigged Draco Malfoy), James Norton, and Sam Reid are the more-or-less fresh new faces who all do an excellent job holding their own (Gadon and Norton particularly). And dominating all of them with the screen-controlling authority of a natural-born goddess is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in the breakthrough role that wrote all the checks which would later be cashed by Beyond the Lights.

It's her film, and not just because she's playing the titular Belle - that is Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, illegitimate mixed-race daughter of the late Captain Sir John Lindsay (Goode), placed into the protection of his uncle William Murray, Earl of Mansfield (Wilkinson) and his wife Elizabeth (Watson). Plenty of rising stars have struck out with this kind of made-to-order star vehicle, or been lucky to hit a single. Mbatha-Raw knocks the hide off the ball with her first at-bat: though she's better in just about every way in Beyond the Lights (which offers her a much fuller, more sophisticated role to play), there's nothing about this performance that doesn't suggest an actor in full command of her voice, her body, her face, and the knowledge of how to control all three of those things for maximum effectiveness in front of the movie camera. She manages to give the film nuance about its themes it didn't even know it wanted: while racism is something that rather blandly inhabits the film, rather than something the film wants to investigate (it adopts the drearily common attitude of congratulating itself for being more progressive than people who died 200 years ago, and letting that stand in for social commentary), Mbatha-Raw is interested in more complexity than that, and provides it. In her shocked expressions and line deliveries clicking from sullen acceptance to cold rage, she evokes a non-white woman whose childhood and adolescence have made her aware on an intellectual level would hold racist thoughts towards people who look like her, but is only becoming aware as an adult what that actually entails in the outside world. It's not a reading the script actively precludes, but it's not one it leans on either, and thank God for Mbatha-Raw for ferreting it out and making it the basis for a more interesting take on the character.

Without that performance in the center, Belle would be a great deal less interesting, a sort of soporifically soporific parade of slightly too crisp costumes on nicely lived-in sets with Wilkinson's tartness and Richardson's fire-spitting the most actively enjoyable elements. It's not as wildly generic as something like The Duchess; the notion of putting a study of social mores surrounding race and illegitimacy (there's a fun thread teasing out which actually bothers the characters more) into 18th Century dress is certainly original, and the organic way that a by-the-numbers drama about a woman of independent financial means but many other social limitations gradually and almost invisibly involves into a legal drama gives the film more of a unique personality still. The story is unquestionably worth the telling, even with Asante/Sagay's forthright fictionalisation of all the historical details to make Dido a bit more central in situations she probably had little access to (her wealth in the film is a fiction, for one thing; and the film curiously misrepresents the painting of Dido and her friend and foster-sister that has done as much as anything else to secure her place in history). That's all just to give it a bit more of a dramatic shape, after all, and it needs such a shape to avoid fizzling into nothing much whatsoever.

So, not offensive overall, but it's definitely most worthwhile as a delivery system for one of the most fascinating and potent new stars of the '10s. Mbatha-Raw is on fire here: it's a star-is-born turn of the sort that Hollywood myths used to be made out of, and it's that, rather than anything inherent to the movie, that will make it worth returning to in years to come.