FLIX: 'Belle' of the movie ball

• CAST: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, Sam Reid, Tom Felton

• Director: Amma Asante

• Opens May 16 at the River Oaks Theater and AMC Studio 30 in Houston

I have always been fascinated with the British monarchy and period pieces. From Jane Austen films to the television show "The Tudors," I think the attraction falls in the costumes, set pieces and the lives of those in the noble class.

The year is 1769, and 6-year-old Dido Elizabeth Belle is left an orphan after her African mother, a slave in the Caribbean, passes away. Her father, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a captain in the British navy unaware of Belle's existence, receives news of her mother's death and rescues his young daughter. They sail back to England, where Sir Lindsay asks his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the chief justice of England, and his aunt, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), to take in Belle and treat her as family while he's away serving in the Royal Navy. At first, Lady Mansfield has reservations because of Bell's mixed race, but Lord Mansfield agrees to raise her, and the childless couple, already looking after great-niece Elizabeth, raise the girls, who become close like sisters.

The story then advances a few years, and the girls, now young adults, are treated equally - well, almost. Bell is not allowed to dine with the family because of her race, yet she is not allowed to dine with the servants because she is a member of the family. After dinner, she is allowed to mingle with company; some are fascinated by her exotic beauty while others are disgusted.

Word arrives that Belle's father has been killed and that she has inherited his entire fortune. This means she will be able to live comfortably for the rest of her life without having to find a suitor to take care of her. That is not the case for her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who is penniless after being abandoned by her father; therefore, she must find an affluent gentleman to court her.

Tom Felton - in a role almost as evil as his Harry Potter character Draco Malfoy - plays James Ashford, a possible spouse for Elizabeth. He is repulsed by her cousin Dido, a feeling shared by his mother, Lady Ashford (devilishly played by the talented Miranda Richardson). It's the local vicar's son, John Davinier (Sam Reid), a civil rights activist and aspiring lawyer, who falls for Belle, and the two have very good chemistry on screen.

Davinier becomes close to Belle and fills her in on a case that her uncle is scheduled to adjudicate that involves the slave ship Zong. The ship's captain ordered 142 slaves shackled together to be thrown overboard like a piece of cargo because they were sick. Lord Mansfield's ruling on the case could have far-reaching implications and help abolish slavery. Together, Davinier and Belle try to persuade Lord Mansfield to make the right decision.

The film is loosely based on a true story, and there is a scene in the film in which Lord Mansfield commissions a portrait of Belle and Elizabeth side by side as equals and sisters. That painting now hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland. British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw is exceptional as Belle, bringing a mix of charm and intelligence to the role. She will next be seen in the Wachowski's sci-fi epic "Jupiter Ascending" in July. The two-time Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson is always a pleasure to watch; he brings sincerity and compassion to the role of Lord Mansfield. Amma Asante makes her second directorial effort an engaging pleasure to watch that's filled with great performances.

Rating: 4 Stars

Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Houston Film Critics Society and juror at the Victoria Texas Independent Film Festival. He reviews films every Friday on Hit Radio 104.7 KVIC. Contact Joe at jfriar95@gmail.com.