Miranda Richardson is no stranger to period dramas.

She's played Queen Elizabeth I several times, the Duchess of Kent, the famous artist Vanessa Bell and others both on stage and screen, and she earned an Oscar nomination for playing Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, T.S Eliot's wife, in "Tom & Viv."

So you almost expect to find the veteran actor in a movie like the 18th century-set "Belle," which is based on a famous painting and follows the mixed-race daughter of a British admiral and an African slave as she's raised by her aristocratic family.

Richardson, who plays the fictionalized Lady Ashford, says period pieces are appealing for several reasons.

For an actor, "You've got much more of a sense of dress-up and getting things right and then having to free up within that, within the constraints of whatever the time demands, is the interesting thing," she says.

"It's also exciting in the way that history, if it doesn't always repeat itself, it can shed light on our contemporary society," she adds. "Or at least make us assess anew what's going on now and how much we might have changed."

The film parallels protagonist Dido Elizabeth Belle's story with the Zong massacre case in Britain, presided over by Belle's uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and considered a watershed in the eventual eradication of slavery in Britain.

"This film is on the cusp of modern times. The language is such that it hops back but it also is looking forward. It's not completely stuck in an 18th-century speak or something. It's got an energy to it," Richardson says.

The actress, 56, hasn't just limited herself to costume dramas, of course. Her career has taken her to a wide variety of places, from the "Harry Potter" universe to "The Crying Game." She's even acted opposite Paul Giamatti and Vince Vaughn in the lowbrow comedy "Fred Claus."

"We run along all strata of society and get a chance to observe," Richardson says of actors. " It's almost a unique position I think."