Amazing Grace (2006): Directed by Michael Apted

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Based on the true story of one mans crusade to end slavery in Great Britain at the end of the 18th century, Amazing Grace is a conventional social injustice drama, helped immensely by a strong lead performance from Ioan Gruffudd. This movie, which served as closing night of the 2006 Toronto Film Festival back in September, is now being released stateside by Goldwyn and Roadside Attractions.

Director Michael Apted (the seminal 7Up-49Up documentary series, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Enigma”) tries to give the two-centuries-old political battle a contemporary resonance, but it’s Gruffudds starring turn as the impassioned William Wilberforce that provides the necessary rooting interest.

The year is 1797, and a sickly William Wilberforce (Gruffudd) feels disenfranchised after 15 frustrating years in the House of Commons, futilely trying to pass bills that would end Englands African slave trade. The film then quickly flashes back to 1782 and the twenty-something Wilberforce, buoyant with eager optimism to show his fellow MPs in the British Parliament that slavery is an immoral practice unbecoming the then most powerful and free nation in the world.

With encouragement from his best friend, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), the countrys youngest Prime Minister, Wilberforce starts to assemble a team of like-minded abolitionists to launch a campaign that will educate the British people about the horrible conditions on slave ships. But with no Parliamentary support–after all, slavery is a crucial engine that conditions and propels Britains economic stability–Wilberforce finds his efforts exceedingly slow-going and his hopes dashed by several heartbreakingly defeats.

By 1897, Wilberforce, though still a vehement abolitionist, has suffered so many setbacks that he sees no possible victory in sight. However, after meeting the beautiful and equally idealistic Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), her youthful exuberance and admiration for his cause help to re-ignite his own passion. Soon, they marry, and he finds the strength to battle one more time to pass his legislation.

World cinema has a deep history of films that chronicle societys racist past: Amistad, Glory, and To Kill a Mockingbird are but three classic that quickly come to mind. In these films, a brave, solitary figure (or a group) come together to fight for the freedom of the powerless black minority, facing off against bigoted whites that see blacks as second-class citizens. Eventually, the brave individuals defeat their significant opposition by appealing to their shared humanity and basic goodness.

Amazing Grace belongs to this tradition, and certainly the outcome of Wilberforces cause is a known fact before the film even begins. Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight (who was Oscar-nominated for his fine script for Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things) imbue the characters and situations with enough vitality that the predictability of the scenario doesnt deter too greatly from interest in the saga.

The films most vibrant character is also its most essential: William Wilberforce. Perhaps best known for his role as Mr. Fantastic in the big-budget Fantastic Four films, Gruffudd here creates a sophisticated, unassuming, funny man whose abolitionist fervor stems from his natural sense of equality rather than self-righteousness. Gruffudd does stellar work in showing how Wilberforce who, before entering the Parliament gave serious consideration to devoting his life to the Church, balanced his spiritual beliefs with a need to enter the corrupt world of politics in order to bring about change.

If Wilberforce came across as strident and superior, Amazing Grace would be an unbearably sanctimonious sermon about the importance of equal rights. But Gruffudds layered performance makes him a likable, principled man worthy of admiration. Because Wilberforce never loses his common touch, he becomes a truly heroic figure when he delivers the occasional heartfelt speech, calling upon courage and strength greater than himself.

As director, Apted has proved to be a more successful documentary filmmaker than a feature helmer. While his 7Up-49Up series is rightly celebrated for its years-spanning look at a group of British citizens as they grow up and old, his narrative films (such as Gorillas in the Mist with Sigourney Weaver and the James Bond entry The World Is Not Enough, among others) have demonstrated a certain level of craftsmanship, but not much flair or passion. Amazing Grace suffers from a similar lack of fire.

Although Apted clearly wants to make a link between 18th-century Britains separate-but-equal hypocrisy and contemporary Americas attacks against civil liberties in the name of democracy, the film hews closely to the traditions of the staid period-costume drama. Consequently, Amazing Grace may feel to some viewers as a school instructional film rather than a particularly resonant commentary on present-day concerns.

Thanks to Knights thoughtful script, Amazing Grace does boast several strong performances. Especially good as Wilberforces love interest, Garai projects a sensuality and intelligence that make her fetching. As a cantankerous MP who joins Wilberforces abolitionist team, the always-reliable Michael Gambon utilizes his regal presence and dry wit to good effect.

Surprisingly, the one false note among the cast is the usually dependable Albert Finney, who plays a repentant slave-ship captain and overdoes his characters melodramatic anguish.

Ultimately, though, Amazing Grace seems to be at odds with itself, unsure which tone to take with its material. Apteds ceremonious pace bogs down the story with an air of self-importance that runs counter to Gruffudds terrifically gentle and empathetic performance. Since the cause at the center of Amazing Grace is worthy enough, its unfortunate that Apted felt the need to drape it in extra significance.

Credits

Running time: 118 minutes

Director: Michael Apted
Production companies: Sunflower Productions, Bristol Bay Productions, Ingenious Film Partners
US distribution: Samuel Goldwyn Films, Roadside Attractions
Executive Producers: Jeanney Kim, James Clayton, Duncan Reid
Co-producer: Mark Cooper
Producers: Edward Pressman, Terrence Malick, Patricia Heaton, David Hunt, Ken Wales
Screenplay: Steven Knight
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Editor: Rick Shaine
Production design: Charles Wood
Music: David Arnold

Cast

William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd)
Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai)
William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Lord Tarleton (Ciarn Hinds)
Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell)
Olaudah Equiano (Youssou NDour)
Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon)
John Newton (Albert Finney)
Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones)