Well short of “Amazing” but just enough “Grace”
There is no doubting the earnestness and importance of the historical biopic “Amazing Grace.” Tracing the story of William Wilberforce, the 18th century British parliamentarian who was the catalyst of the movement that abolished slave trading, the film, like its central character, is resolute in its objective. Perhaps too resolute. Directed by respected documentarian Michael Apted (the “7 Up” series), the film feels too much like a History Channel docudrama.
Nevertheless, what an important part of history it is. The fledgling United States was not the only country that benefited greatly from the import of African slaves. Packed up in grotesquely crowed cargo ships, many dying en route, slaves not only became useful servants to their British owners but profitable trade chattel in their own right.
Seeing this injustice, Wilberforce (commendably portrayed by the gently serious Ioan Gruffudd from “Fantastic Four”) spent over 15 years making his case for abolition in the House of Commons, earning friends (characters portrayed by Benedict Cumberpatch, Rufus Sewell and Michael Gambon) and enemies, particularly outspoken MPs (Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones).
Wilberforce also battled serious health issues that destroyed his beautiful singing voice, which in his younger years earned him a “nightingale’s” nickname. We hear him sing the film’s signature tune, which was penned by a former slave captain turned monk (Albert Finney in full stoically repentant mode), who now serves as the aspiring politician’s mentor.
The ping-pong narrative that bounces between early and later periods of William’s life is distracting. The film also suffers from a lack of actual dramatization of the slave exploitation central to the film’s emotional core. (Moreover, female viewers beware: nary so much as a hint of romantic spark to be found.) Indeed, the lone slave (musician Youssou N’Dour) and the only primary female character (Romola Garai of “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”) are greatly underused.
A Jane Austen adaptation for guys is what “Amazing Grace” ends up being. But it’s likely audiences of both genders would prefer a film that was a little less tedious and more entertaining, something any great history teacher could tell you.
Rated PG for racism, language, and drug use.