Amazing Grace

(2007) *** Pg
111 min. Samuel Goldwyn Films. Director: Michael Apted. Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Romola Garai.

It's the rare film that traces the history of a major political change, from outset to resolution. Amazing Grace may not be All the President's Men, but director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steven Wright (Dirty Pretty Things) do a workmanlike job of shedding light on the abolitionist struggle in 18th Century Britain. The political climate comes into focus through the lens of one rather extraordinary politician, MP William Wilberforce.

Ioan Griffith (Fantastic Four) does solid, somewhat stolid work as Wilberforce, and Wright dutifully notes his idealism, faith, and endearingly eccentric foibles, such as practicing his oratory to himself or opening his home to overflow crowds of guests and animals (Wilberforce was a founding member of the RSPCA). It's hard to blame the man for his air of distraction, given a struggle with illness (and to liberate himself from the treatment, laudanum) and his burgeoning romance with reform-minded Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai).

Amazing Grace is largely about such young men and women of conscience, at a time when Wilberforce's friend William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch) was the empire's youngest Prime Minister. But young talents like Gruffudd, Garai, Cumberbatch, and Stephen Campbell Moore are steadily upstaged by their elders. Powerhouses Ciáran Hinds and Michael Gambon play MPs on opposite sides of the slave-trade issue, Rufus Sewell gets to play a non-cad for a change, and Albert Finney packs a wallop in a few scenes as John Newton, the Wilberforce acquaintance who repudiated the slave trade, became an evangelical ascetic, and penned "Amazing Grace." As former slave Olaudah Equiano, Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour represents the oppressed.

Though Wright reminds us of the edge of revolution to the then-unheard-of slave-trade reform (a movement openly treated, by the opposition, as a joke), one can't expect much surprise from the narrative, and Wilberforce proves more interesting on paper than he does dramatically. Newton's friendship with Wilberforce is no doubt overstated for sentimental reasons, and the film opens on a dodgy metaphor: Wilberforce stopping his carriage in the rain to harangue a man for beating his black steed on the roadside*. Still, in most respects, Amazing Grace is a creditable historical drama about those who choose to be in the world, not merely of it.

*[Thanks are due to the reader who pointed out that the scene is based on an actual incident, when Wilberforce (on foot) showed concern for a mistreated horse; nevertheless, Apted's horse of a certain color equates Wilberforce's love for animals with his attempted salvation of Africans from the slave trade. While both demonstrate sensitivity to the abuse of living creatures and show what a great guy he was, the metaphorical conflation of slaves and animals discomfits by establishing at the outset (though an articulate former-slave spokesperson appears later) a white-man champion of the simple, defenseless, beaten-down slave "creature," a cliche the film otherwise resists indulging.]

[For Groucho's interview with Ioan Gruffudd, click here.]

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