Amma Asante's Belle is like a Jane Austen novel spiked with an extra shot of social conscience. It's based on the true story of a mixed-race 18th-century woman named Dido Elizabeth Belle who was raised in upper-crust British society but never able to fully enter it. Beautifully played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dido is the illegitimate daughter of a slave woman and a Royal Navy admiral who leaves her in the care of her aristocratic great-uncle (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). They raise her as an equal or as much of one as the era permits. While she's doted on by her family, Dido's not allowed to dine with company, who regard her as scandalously exotic. Or, as Miranda Richardson's catty Lady Ashford remarks, ''I had no idea she'd be so...black.''
As Dido and her impetuous cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) blossom into young women, they're put on the marriage market. And the message is clear: Women during this time were, like slaves, property to be auctioned off, making Dido doubly powerless. The added irony is that although she has a sizable inheritance, she's considered less marriageable than her penniless white cousin. Who will love her? She meets a commoner a dreamy vicar's son (Sam Reid) who's so fired up about slavery and Dido herself that he always seems on the verge of tears, or perhaps auditioning for the role of Mr. Darcy. Like Downton Abbey but with corsets, culottes, and tricorn hats, Belle subtly skewers the absurd rules and hypocrisies of class. But the real takeaway is Mbatha-Raw. She makes a case for why she ought to be a star. B+