Amazing Grace

2006, Movie, PG, 111 mins


Michael Apted's period drama about 17th-century social reformer William Wilberforce — who devoted much of his adult life to the abolition of England's slave trade — is a workmanlike piece of storytelling elevated by fine performances.

1797: The 34-year-old Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a wealthy, unmarried tradesman who's channeled his intense Christian faith into an uphill battle to force England's elite to listen to their consciences rather than their pocketbooks, is persuaded to take a break by old friend Henry Thornton (Nicholas Farrell). Addicted to laudanum that had been prescribed to ease his agonizing colitis, as well as sleepless and haunted by his failure to persuade Parliament that far from being an economic necessity, slavery is an offense against God and human decency, Wilberforce agrees to let others take up the fight. Henry and his wife, Marianne (Sylvestra Le Touzel), believe that their friend needs rest and the love of a good woman, and try to fix him up with their socially conscious friend, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). Though both see right through the ham-fisted attempts at matchmaking, Barbara and "Wilber," as he's known familiarly, eventually realize that they're kindred spirits, and he tells her the long story of his crusade.

More than a decade earlier, Wilber — a 21-year-old member of the House of Commons with a fierce commitment to social reform — was at a spiritual crossroads, seriously considering a cloistered life. He was instead persuaded to channel his faith into battling earthly injustice by the politically ambitious William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), and by slave-ship captain turned minister John Newton (Albert Finney), whose own awakening moved him to write the hymn "Amazing Grace." When the 24-year-old Pitt is elected prime minister, he and Wilber conspire to get antislavery legislation passed. They're opposed by powerful Lord Tarlton (Ciaran Hinds) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones), but find an unlikely ally in Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon), who switches sides to support the coalition of reformers, which includes fervent abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) and freed slave Oloudah Equiano (Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour).

Screenwriter Steven Knight glosses over problematic aspects of Wilberforce's character — his concern for enslaved Africans was paternalistic and had as much to do with their ignorance of Christianity as their brutal mistreatment — and his strategy, which relied on compromise and did not produce outright abolition of the slave trade. But history is messier than drama, and he does an admirable job of streamlining a story that unfolds over the course of 20 years. Meanwhile, Apted allows his fine cast the breathing room to make historical figures feel like living, breathing people rather than waxworks. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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