Crisply told and sincerely thesped, “Amazing Grace” is a workmanlike costumer that distills Blighty’s long battle for the abolition of slavery and the personalities behind landmark antislavery legislation into a tidy story of conscience and perseverance. The closing night preem at the Toronto fest, pic will go out Stateside Feb., 23, 2007, to mark the bicentennial of the passage of a key bill in the struggle. Biz will be decent but unspectacular, though ancillary could be fuelled by pic’s educational value.
In 1797, 34-year-old Evangelical antislavery firebrand William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), consumed by his cause, exhausted by the vicious Parliament in-fighting and wracked by colitis, retires to the country home of his friends Henry and Marianne Thornton (Nicholas Farrell, Sylvestra Le Touzel). While on the mend, he recounts his struggles to admirer Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai).
Cut to eight years prior, when Wilberforce, whom everybody seems to call “Wilbur,” is persuaded by close friend and future Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) to introduce legislation to end the slave trade in the British Empire.
Wilberforce, who was only 21 when he was elected to the House of Commons, joins Pitt, who at 24 became the youngest P.M. in Britain’s history, to lead a contentious and complex fight for antislavery legislation against chief opponents Lord Tarlton (Ciaran Hinds) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones).
Wilberforce and Pitt are aided by oddball do-gooder Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) and prominent freed slave and author Oloudah Equiano (Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, fine in low-key thesping debut). But, despite their best efforts, Wilberforce’s first antislavery bill is defeated by a landslide in 1791, and subsequent annual legislation fares no better.
However, back in 1797, inspired by his growing love for Barbara, Wilberforce once again takes up the antislavery crusade. After much wrangling and skullduggery, a bill is finally passed in 1807 which does not outlaw slavery but makes it illegal for British ships to transport slaves, giving Wilberforce a hard-fought, morally correct victory.
Cautioning at the tail of the closing credit crawl that certain characters and incidents have been combined or invented to move the drama along, pic’s convenient tale of good vs. evil nevertheless makes its forceful point that Wilberforce’s youthful obsessiveness and unorthodox methods aided tremendously in ending British transport of slaves and accelerating the demise of the slave trade. In fact, the actual Slavery Abolition Act wasn’t passed until 1833, a month after Wilberforce’s death.
Pic reflects the no-nonsense storytelling skills of prolific helmer Michael Apted, whose career-long mix of feature and docu work holds him in good stead once more. Cast is uniformly fine, with Gruffudd setting the pace via a sincere and well-modulated perf and Hinds appropriately dastardly as the sneering Tarlton.
In the three scenes in which he appears, Albert Finney is mesmerizing as the remorseful former slave trader and Wilberforce adviser John Newton, while Michael Gambon gets the bulk of pic’s few lighter lines as Lord Charles Fox, whose dramatic defection to the antislavery movement is seen to break up the logjam within Parliament.
Tech package is pro, with CGI discretely broadening the horizons in certain long shots to cement the period illusion. Closing credits crawl over a bagpipe performance of the cherished title tune, first penned by Newton in the 1770s and lustily sung by Gruffudd at a pivotal point in the proceedings; that segues into “Everyone’s Sky,” penned and sung by N’Dour and composer David Arnold.