Film of the Week: Belle (12A) ****

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but when that beauty defies the social mores of a prejudiced era, it must be cherished in secret.

Belle is the enchanting dramatisation of a true story of fortitude across racial and class divides at a time when pompous men of privilege were vociferously debating the end of slavery in England.

Tom Wilkinson as "Lord Mansfield" and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as "Dido Elizabeth Belle"'' Picture: PA Photo/Fox UK Film

Tom Wilkinson as "Lord Mansfield" and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as "Dido Elizabeth Belle"'' Picture: PA Photo/Fox UK Film

Amma Asante’s handsome period piece illuminates the debate and some of the characters, whose lives intersected at this historical crossroads.

Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) brings his illegitimate, mixed race daughter Dido to England and entrusts the child to his aristocratic uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) while he returns to sea.

Lord Mansfield’s wife (Emily Watson) is opposed to the plan but he permits Dido to stay, allowing his great-niece to become a constant companion to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth.

The pair blossom with the latter preparing to seek a wealthy husband.

Dido (now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is afforded certain privileges by her lineage but she must remain behind closed doors at important social gatherings.

Oliver Ashford (James Norton), the handsome offspring of Lord and Lady Ashford (Alex Jennings, Miranda Richardson) is a potential love match for Elizabeth but he is more interested in Dido.

However, Dido’s head is turned by idealistic lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is heavily involved in a case that opens her eyes to the barbarism of slavery.

Elegantly scripted by Misan Sagay, Belle is a beautifully crafted companion piece to 12 Years A Slave that traverses a moral maze through British eyes and reminds us that we have blood on our hands too.

Mbatha-Raw catalyses smouldering screen chemistry with Reid, and Wilkinson brings pomp and circumstance to his pivotal role as a man with the power to chip away at the foundations of the legal firmament.

Dramatic momentum steadily builds to Lord Mansfield’s deliberation on the pivotal case, watched intently by Dido and Davinier.

Like them, we’re spellbound by his ruling.