Morally irreproachable and flat as a pancake, Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace
is set amid a bickering House of Commons in late-18th-century London, but the movie belongs squarely in the currently blooming subgenre of Whites Saving Dark-Skinned Victims of Empire. Or at least it would were Apted able to bring a little
drama to the party. Just as Blood Diamond was about white men making the
world safe for conflict-free earrings, Amazing Grace
is the story of how England was won over to slavery-free sugar imports by William Wilberforce, a liberal member of Parliament. Only, being British, he talks—and talks, and talks—the opposition into submission. Wil- berforce, the real-life abolitionist who devoted his life to pushing anti-slave-trade legislation through a hostile Parliament terrified of waving goodbye to the British Empire, comes with grade-A hero credentials. Still, he doesn’t deserve to be deified, sanctified, and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy—and that’s just in the first 10 minutes.
From the word go we feel the burden of the exhaustive research that went into making
Amazing Grace. Steven Knight’s ponderous script is front-loaded with expository deep background and stuffed into an awkward structure that lumbers back and forth between early Wilberforce the idealist and late Wilberforce the broken man. White as a
sheet and doubled over his laudanum- addicted intestines, Will (as we are encouraged to think of him) tells in flashback the sorry tale of his failure to ignite parliamenta- ry conscience. Listening to his woe is blind date Barbara Spooner, a reform-minded lass played by the comely Romola Garai and ear- marked, despite his bashful reluctance to jump her lovely bones, to become Will’s wife.
As rendered by the granite-jawed Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, young Wilberforce is a rock star among parliamentarians, noble of countenance, fiery of rhetoric, and implausibly lacking in earthly ambition. No conniving pol he: Will is much given to agonized chats with God while lying in wet grass as he strives to decide whether to become a man of the cloth or a player among the bewigged members of Commons, who fear that the anti-slavery movement smacks of the nasty revolutions already under way in France and America.
Urged on by his old friend Pitt the Younger (the excellent, if weird-looking, Benedict Cumberbatch), an all-white posse of activists, and a single freed slave who is seen signing copies of his memoirs before conveniently dying of sorrow, Wilberforce is brought to the realization that there’s no inherent contradiction between being a man of God and a man of the world. Whereupon he squares his broad shoulders and bursts into song, serenading a room full of dour Tories (among them Ciarán Hinds, a reliable practitioner of the patrician sneer) with the famous hymn that gives this guileless movie its title. It turns out that the love- ly song “Amazing Grace,” which I had always thought was written by an American, was actually composed by John Newton, a former slave-ship captain so sickened by the cruelty with which slaves were treated en route to England that he spent the rest of his life atoning. This, if nothing else, gives Albert Finney, who plays the reformed sin- ner, a chance to wear a sackcloth dress and
an unaccustomed air of humility as he swabs flagstones in his local church and unloads the sage counsel (“Wilbur, you have work to do”) needed to galvanize Will into action.
Slackly paced, suffused with tasteful lighting, and weighed down by a surfeit of
chat, Amazing Grace hauls us responsibly through the fight to bring the good word to Parliament. It’s a Sisyphean struggle that, even with the embrace of abolitionism by Pitt’s sworn enemy Lord Fox (played by Michael Gambon, who keeps throwing off his wig to reveal dispiriting hat hair), seems doomed to failure. Only at the end, spurred to renewed activism by his wife, does Will mount a grass-roots campaign and—thank God—lower his holier-than-thou self to a little means-ends dirty work, the stuff that gets things done in all politics, liberal or otherwise. Wilberforce was a sterling fellow who undoubtedly earned the pro forma standing ovation with which Apted caps this stolid movie. But after all that virtue, you can’t imagine what a relief it is to learn, even at the eleventh hour, that he wasn’t just a stiff upper lip.