William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd ) is born into the age of the Great British Empire. A good friend of England's youngest Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), Wilberforce, elected to the House of Commons at 21, and entrusted by Pitt with the cause for the Abolition of Slavery. Wilberforce finds himself torn between his rising career and his desire to give it all up for a life of spirituality. He seeks the advice of friend and mentor John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave trader now turned to the Church seeking redemption. Inspired by Newton, Wilberforce becomes the champion of the abolition movement, but finds his Parliamentary colleagues disinterested - or worse, tied to the slave trade by self interest and greed. Year after year his Bill fails.
Review by Louise Keller:
While there is plenty to hold our interest in William Wilberforce's noble battle to abolish slavery in 18th Century Britain, as a film, Amazing Grace is overzealous and gets bogged down by details. By jumping to and fro in time, the screenplay by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) not only confuses, but fails to let us engage with the characters and connect with Wilberforce's great achievements. It is a great pity because this project directed by Michael Apted is overtly well-intentioned and boasts a top cast, headed by the charismatic Ioan Gruffudd as the man intent to make the world a better place.
The film begins in 1797, with a horse-drawn carriage speeding down a muddy road under torrents of rain. Wilberforce's health has suffered from his passionate commitment to his causes, and he has come to Bath for a health cure. But it is not the opiates he is given that allow him the fix he needs; it is the love of a like-minded, strong-willed woman Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) that gives him strength. In flashback, we are taken back 15 years in time, where heated Parliamentary debates take place. Accent is on the relationships between Wilberforce and his close friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), who becomes Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister, his allies (Nicholas Farrell, Rufus Sewell and Michael Gambon) and the conflicts with his opponents (Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones).
Although attempts are made to give a rounded view of Wilberforce, the results only seem to make him overly virtuous. His self-quandary whether to devote his energies to politics or religion prompts a group of anti-slavery activists to convince him he can effectively do both. ('Make sure you're in the world, not of the world,' John Newton (Albert Finney) advises his protégé. Newton penned over 200 hymns after his conscience led him from benefiting from the slave trade to the church, of which Amazing Grace (effectively sung by Gruffudd) was one. Wilberforce was a great man who made a significant contribution, yet the film never does him justice - either as a man or a selfless activist. The rousing rendition of the title song when played by the 100 piece Irish Guard Pipe band at the close of the film, offers the film's most moving moment.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
I've learnt a few interesting things from this film, including the origins of the song whose title is also the title of the film. The words were written by a reformed slave trader, John Newton (Albert Finney), who is forever haunted by the ghosts of 20,000 slaves who boarded his ships over the years. Driven by well researched material in Steven Knight's screenplay, Michael Apted keeps the focus on Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) so that the film is less a period drama than a biography. But the cause for which Wilberforce is fighting is such a powerful element that the film is also like a political thriller.
Apted underlines the historical tensions with what was also a generational battle, fought between the young men in Parliament - Wilberforce and Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) are both under 30 - and the old establishment figures, like Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds), Lord Fox (Michael Gambon) and Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones). That Apted has cast well is beyond question: the older cast represent some of the cream of English actors, and the younger ones also deliver terrific performances. My favourite is Benedict Cumberbatch, whose unique face and minimalist yet powerful performance stands out as the young Prime Minister in traumatic times, together with Albert Finney's saddened Newton, a figure of tragic proportions. I like Rufus Sewell as the somewhat bohemian activist Thomas Clarkson, and Gruffud's intelligent, driven -if rather tortured - Wilberforce is memorable.
The story is set in its historical context, with the French Revolution around the corner, its implications for Britain's ruling class an ominous cloud. The English distrust of the Americans and their sense of global dominance are all sensed in the film without the need for narrative intervention. The characters at the centre, including Barbara (Romola Garai) who later becomes Mrs Wilberforce, are well drawn and accessible.
There are flaws, though: the opening scene of Wilberforce stopping his carriage to admonish two men beating a tired horse seems laboured, and some of the scenes in Parliament are forced. But with its 18th century ambiance, the film looks as authentic as you'd expect from modern filmmaking, including the two major port scenes, shot at The Chatham Historic Dockyard.
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AMAZING GRACE (PG)
CAST: Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Albert Finney, Sir Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Youssou N'Dour, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Nicholas Farrell, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Jeremy Swift, Bill Paterson, Nicholas Day
PRODUCER: Patricia Heaton, David Hunt, Terrence Malick, Edward R. Pressman, Ken Wales
DIRECTOR: Michael Apted
SCRIPT: Steven Knight
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Remi Adefarasin
EDITOR: Rick Shaine
MUSIC: David Arnold
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Charles Wood
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 26, 2007