Movie review: 'Amazing Grace' brings out the best

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2007 - 3:28 PM

"Amazing Grace"boasts a stellar cast and stands as a moving tribute to decency.

"Amazing Grace" turns complicated political events and a complex hero into stirring and sumptuously produced historical drama.

It's the story of William Wilberforce, one of the great do-gooders of 18th-century British politics, and his unceasing efforts to end the nation's role in the slave trade. The film tidies up inconvenient facts, rejiggering chronology, ignoring the reformer's early years as a young rakehell, and allowing historical figures to deliver rousing speeches long after they were, in actuality, dead. But a bit of inaccuracy is a small price to pay for such an uplifting film.

Wilberforce was a man of many parts: a wealthy progressive, a pious philanthropist, a daydreaming lover of nature (he established a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals), a frequently bedridden invalid with an unshakable will to change the world.

Ioan Gruffudd moves through the part without any sense that he is a Great Man of History; rather he's a man with uncommonly decent instincts and the good fortune to be placed in a situation where he can bring them to bear. The script bounces between decades, requiring him to play young and old Wilberforce in the space of a cut, but Gruffudd handles the transitions persuasively and has the British actor's gift of looking at home in breeches and powdered wigs.

The film skims across his private life, using his recurring illnesses to lend a somewhat manipulative cliff-hanger aspect to the story. He meets his wife, Barbara (the lively and gifted Romola Garai), through a setup that would fit into any rom-com, then speeds back to the thick of politics.

It's in that world of wheeling and dealing that director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter,"The World Is Not Enough") does his best work. The progress of Wilberforce's anti-slavery bill through Parliament took decades, but Apted sustains the story's tension with forcefully staged scenes of political skullduggery. The debates overflow with witty repartee, and when votes come to the floor you hold your breath in tense anticipation.

Vivid casting helps. His hero's opponents include Ciaran Hinds as bluff, obstructionist Lord Tarleton; Toby Jones as the Duke of Clarence, a preening, unctuous slave-owner, and Bill Patterson as calculating Lord Dundas.

Wilberforce's allies are an equally impressive gallery of acting talent. Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour acts the role of freed slave Equiano, whose narrative of his experiences became a bestseller, with grave dignity. Rufus Sewell plays entertaining games with his eyes and mouth as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, whose notion that Europe's oppressed classes also deserved freedom branded him as a revolutionary crank. Michael Gambon lends a magisterial presence to Lord Fox, a convert to the cause who becomes a vital strategist. Albert Finney is electrifying in three powerful scenes as Wilberforce's spiritual adviser John Newton, a repentant former slave ship captain who dedicated himself to undoing the traffic in human lives, and the composer of the title hymn.

The finale is an emotionally powerful performance of that tune by military bagpipers outside Westminster Abbey, where Wilberforce is buried, a reverberant climax to an absorbing lesson in history and humanism.

  • AMAZING GRACE

    3½ out of 4 stars

    The setup: An inspiring biography of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the 18th-century member of Parliament who led the 20-year battle to abolish the British slave trade.

    What works: It's a stirring and still relevant political drama with a stellar cast including Michael Gambon, Albert Finney and Rufus Sewell.

    What doesn't: The great Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour, playing a liberated slave, never gets a chance to sing, and the storyline takes liberties with details to make its dramatic points. Kids, don't write your history essays based on this one.

    Great line: When Wilberforce unrolls a long petition signed by citizens who oppose slavery across the floor of Parliament, his adversaries thunder "Mob rule!"

    Rating: PG for mild language and thematic material involving slavery.

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