This review was written for the festival screening of "Amazing Grace."
TORONTO -- The dullness of virtue infuses this historical story of the British MP who spent his life fighting the appalling institution of slavery in the British Empire. This is about as safe a historical/political topic as a filmmaker can tackle, where right and wrong are as clear as day. The only cause for wonder for a modern-day viewer is the speciousness and cynicism of the arguments made in favor of the institution in those days.
One does enjoy watching British actors waltz gracefully through such period pieces. So many previous stage and screen roles have prepared them for such projects that wigs, costumes and attitudes fit like well-worn gloves. So such veterans as Albert Finney, Michael Gambon and Ciaran Hinds can be wonderfully hammy yet still not overshadow young actors in the duller, more earnest roles, such as Welshman Ioan Gruffudd as the hero, William Wilberforce and Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt, the youngest British prime minister ever. Nevertheless, boxoffice appeal in North America is limited for such a museum-piece offering. This film will do better on cable and DVD.
Screenwriter Steven Knight chooses a strange attack on his subject. In 1797, William, bitter and quite ill, retreats to the country home of dear friends to recuperate his health after many failed abolitionist campaigns in Parliament. His hosts believe love will cure his illness, so they fix him up with a local, marriageable lass named Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai).
Although reluctant to woo, Barbara is such as an ardent follower of William, she begs him to recount every moment of his campaigns up to present day, even though she must know the stories as well as he does. So in flashback, the movie bears witness to his years of struggle to outlaw the slave trade, largely resisted because British colonial sugar cane interests were totally dependent on slave labor.
We meet the various characters in William's running battle: his youthful friend and now prime minister, William Pitt the Younger; the former slave-ship captain John Newton (Finney), so haunted by his "20,000 ghosts" to compose the song "Amazing Grace" and seek forgiveness in church service; revolutionary Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), who must lay low when war with France makes his views seditious; crafty Lord Fox (Gambon), a relatively early convert among the MPs; and Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour), a former slave who devotes his life to writing against the virulent evil of slavery.
At the end of these tales of frustration, the love cure works. The couple swiftly marries then rushes to London, where the slave trade is largely undone through a clever parliamentary maneuver. It is officially banned for good several sessions later. And that, the movie concludes, ends slavery. Which is complete nonsense because it continues unabated in the New World until the Civil War ends it and, tragically, slavery still exists all over the world today.
The movie contains lengthy parliamentary debates over slavery, though you wonder to what purpose because that argument was settled long ago. The political maneuverings are of some historical interest, but modern relevancy is hard to find.
Gruffudd is vigorous and impassioned -- especially for a sick man -- but Wilberforce never comes to life. Why he made the abolitionist movement his life's calling is only vaguely hinted at given that these were "unsound" ideals for an MP in that era.
So, too, with Garai's infatuated Barbara: Her fate is so determined the moment she appears onscreen, that there is little life or mystery to her character. The good people in this movie are just too good, without flaws or misgivings.
Apted's crew does a decent job establishing period details, but this also never comes to life. These are sets and costumes to be struck at the end of the workday.
Samuel Goldwyn/Roadside Attractions
Bristol Bay Prods. presents a Sunflower production
Director: Michael Apted
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Edward Pressman, Terrence Malick, Patricia Heaton, David Hunt
Executive producers: Jeanney Kim, James Clayton, Duncan Reid
Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin
Production designer: Charles Wood
Costumes: Jenny Beavan
Music: David Arnold
Editor: Rick Shaine
William Wilberforce: Ioan Gruffudd
Barbara Spooner: Romola Garai
William Pitt: Benedict Cumberbatch
John Newton: Albert Finney
Lord Fox: Michael Gambon
Thomas Clarkson: Rufus Sewell
Olaudah Equiano: Youssou N'Dour
Lord Tarleton: Ciaran Hinds
Duke of Clarence: Toby Jones
Running time -- 118 minutes
No MPAA rating