Amazing Grace (PG)



Drama (2006)
118mins UK

Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai, Michael Gambon
Director: Michael Apted
Writer(s): Steven Knight
Listings: London | Rest of UK and Ireland

Biopic of William Wilberforce, the crusader for social change who was at the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery in Great Britain at a time when the Empire held sway. Using petitions, boycotts, mass meetings and badges with slogans, Wilberforce and his supporters hoped to prick the collective conscience of the country, emerging from decades of fighting to witness Parliament pass the first anti-slavery bill in 1807.

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LondonNet Film Review
Amazing Grace

Released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill, which outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire, Amazing Grace is an impassioned history lesson painting crusading reformer William Wilberforce as nothing short of a saint...

Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, a Samuel Goldwyn/Roadside Attractions film. Murray Close  2006 Bristol Bay Productions LLC. Momentum PicturesDirector Michael Apted struggles to navigate the choppy waters between Wilberforce's political ambition and his private concerns, ultimately beaching his beautifully crafted picture on preachy and shamelessly sentimental middle ground.

Ioan Gruffudd cuts a dashing swagger in the lead role, delivering keynote parliamentary speeches with gusto (and a discernible twang of his native Welsh accent). He brings into stark contrast the character's fiery determination, driven by what he believed was a divine purpose, and his ailing health, battling against a severe bout of influenza: "My idiotic body's playing games with me again," he jests.

At the beginning of the film, Wilberforce's good friend William Pitt the Younger (Dominic Cumberbatch) is poised to become England's youngest Prime Minister. He persuades Wilberforce to join the ranks of the House of Commons and spearhead the argument for the abolition of slavery, in the face of vociferous resistance from Lord Dundas (Bill Paterson) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones).

Youssou N'Dour as Olaudah Equiano in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, a Samuel Goldwyn/Roadside Attractions Film. Murray Close  2006 Bristol Bay Productions LLC. Momentum PicturesAfrican slave Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour), who bought his freedom and has written a book about his extraordinary ordeal, joins Wilberforce's abolitionist movement along with aristocratic MP Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) and Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell).

Investing every waking moment in the fight for freedom, Wilberforce pays scant attention to the warning signs from his weak, exhausted body. Not even the concern of Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), the headstrong young woman who becomes his wife, seems to move him: "You've given your youth and your health for this cause. It's time to give someone else a try," she begs.

Pioneering the use of boycotts and petitions to score political points, Wilberforce continues his fight through his 20s and 30s, continually seeking guidance from his mentor John Newton (Albert Finney), the author of the titular hymn.

Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, a Samuel Goldwyn/Roadside Attractions film. Murray Close  2006 Bristol Bay Productions LLC. Momentum PicturesDistinguished by impressive detail and Jenny Beavan's costumes, Amazing Grace makes light work of a tumultuous period in British history, when a few brave men dared to challenge the widely held beliefs of the many.

Screenwriter Steven Knight distils the key points of Wilberforce's crusade with ease, and peppers the character's dialogue with some powerful turns of phrase, whether it be Lord Dundas booming, "This ship of state must not be sunk by a wave of good intentions," or Newton's observation, "God sometimes does his work with gentle drizzle, not great storms."

Scenes between Wilberforce and Pitt are especially touching - Cumberbatch delivers a particularly compelling supporting performance. Gambon brings a roguish quality and a twinkle to his eye to his old timer, and N'Dour imbues dignity and inner strength to his former slave.

Unfortunately, Garai is rather short-changed by the script; screen chemistry with Gruffudd is completely inert. You would never believe that Wilberforce and Barbara were soulmates.

- Sam Cannon


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