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Many period dramas offer a strikingly beautiful look at days gone by, their stories often overshadowed by their luxurious settings and stunning costumes. But, with Belle, director Amma Asante turns the same old period drama on its head, telling the eye-opening true story of a young woman who’s nothing like the usual period drama heroine.

Based on a true story, Belle explores issues of race, gender, and class in 18th-century England. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate mixed-race child of a wealthy naval captain. As a child, Dido is brought to live on a grand estate with her father’s uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), who are already raising Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth (played as an adult by Sarah Gadon).

Though her father’s wealth and position—and, later, her inheritance—provide Dido with a certain status, the color of her skin prevents her from playing an active part in society. Her family is shocked when an appropriate young man takes an interest in the beautiful young heiress. But as he courts her, she finds herself drawn to an ambitious young man who’s determined to change the world.

On the surface, Belle is simply an elegant period drama, complete with striking period costumes and beautiful settings—from London’s city streets to the lush English countryside. The story, too, has a kind of Jane Austen feel to it, with Dido and her family traveling to London for Elizabeth’s coming out. But don’t brush Belle off as another brainless period romance quite yet—because, of course, there’s one major difference in this particular story. While one young woman is sent out into society to find an appropriate husband, her cousin is forced to remain in the background, aware that no man of her standing will take her—and any man who will accept her will be beneath her, thereby shaming her family.

More than just another historical romance, then, Belle is a look at the harsh realities of race and gender in Dido’s time. In a way, both Dido and her cousin are slaves to their situation. Dido is a wealthy heiress whose race keeps her from enjoying her social status, while Elizabeth is a penniless woman of standing who was abandoned by her father, leaving her to search for a husband who’s wealthy enough to overlook her lack of a dowry. And the characters’ challenging circumstances add depth to this thought-provoking twist on the same old period drama.

For those who love big, frilly dresses and period sets, Belle still provides plenty of eye candy. But the fascinating main character and her extraordinary circumstances make it so much more than just another pretty picture.

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