In Amazing Grace, Michael Apted's 18th century biopic about abolishing slavery, Ioan Gruffudd portrays William Wilberforce, a member of England’s House of Commons who takes a stand that sets him apart from his staid fellow Parliamentarians.
During this period of history, slavery was at its height. England, the United States and other countries were hauling boatloads of captives from Africa to be sold as slaves. While not seen in this film, the results --hundreds dying on board, being abused or starved and thrown overboard -- are revealed through the characters' dialogue and are the motivations for their actions.
Wilberforce, who gained part of his religious fervor under the tutelage of his pastor John Newton (Albert Finney), is an Evangelical Christian when he's elected to serve in Parliament at age 21. A young, energetic speaker with a will to change history, Wilberforce meets with the rigid defeat of his fellow countrymen every time he brings up the idea of abolishing slavery.
After years of working as a slave ship captain, Newton had a life-changing religious conversion and became an Anglican clergyman. Feeling the depths of his guilt, Newton wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," a song that has been sung by millions and remains immensely popular today.
Wilberforce, teetering on the brink of extreme physical exhaustion from trying to make his comrades in Parliament heed his message, retires to the home of his cousin Henry Thornton (Nicholas Farrell) and his wife Marianne (Sylvestra Le Touzel). Even though the Thorntons ply him with restorative waters, it doesn't help, and soon Wilberforce is on laudanum to control his painful intestine attacks.
When his cousins decide Wilberforce needs a woman in his life, they introduce him to the beautiful Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). The two don't hit it off immediately but the more they're around each other, the more Barbara nurtures Wilberforce's ailments and encourages him not to give up on something he's very passionate about.
Also on his side is Wilberforce's childhood pal, Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch). They begin small informational meetings where such people as former slave Oloudaqh Equiano (Youssou N'Dour) and the impassioned abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) attend. Their goal of luring members of Parliament to their way of thinking soon has Lord Fox (Michael Gambon) himself defecting to Wilberforce's agenda.
American audiences will recognize some actors among a mostly British cast here. In addition to Ioan Gruffudd (King Arthur), Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich) and Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Toby Jones (Infamous) has minimal screen time as the Duke of Clarence, and Ciarán Hinds (The Nativity Story) portrays the pro-slavery Lord Tarleton.
As far as performances go, Gruffudd seems obviously hampered by the overwriting. While we champion his fervent tirade in the House of Commons where he proclaims, "Remember, God made men equal," we began to tire of him in the third act. However, the versatile and talented Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series) carries us along with his fine performance. And Finney is wonderful as Newton, the repenting clergyman. I particularly like the scene where he's scrubbing floors in the church and Wilberforce comes asking for advice. Newton then tells him to “throw their dirty filthy ships out of the water." Now blind and somewhat mindless, he asks Wilberforce, "I once was blind and now I see; didn't I write that? And now it's true." He adds, "Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly. I'm a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior."
Apted's direction serves the characters of the movie well, however the script by Steven Knight is too long, and there are dull and tedious moments that would have benefited greatly from a more concise story.
The inclusion of Newton's writing -- and Finney singing/sputtering the words -- of his famous song in Amazing Grace binds several elements of this story together, marking an unforgettable and regrettable time in world history while highlighting a few who valiantly set out to right the wrongs.
Enhanced by Remi Adefarasin's impressive photography, Amazing Grace should appeal to moviegoers who like historical and religious-based aspects in films. These viewers will surely share in the movie’s inspirational and triumphant moments.
(Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films LLC. and rated “PG” for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com .