Amazing Grace" tells the story of William Wilberforce, the English MP whose tireless efforts to abolish British participation in the slave trade made him a hero to reformers two centuries ago. Handsomely produced, with much attention lavished on period detail, the film often seems like a Hogarth print come to life. It's all periwigs and breeches, even as the characters discuss, often in grisly detail, the horrors of the middle passage. The story is gripping, to be sure, but this adoring portrait of a wholly noble politician striking out at evil seems in some ways a relic of another age.
To bring Wilberforce before the modern public, "Amazing Grace" engages in a good deal of careful editing of the historical record in order to prune away anything that might complicate our view of the man or the epoch. With its neat division of the players into heroes and villains, it gives us history as one might wish it to be taught to an earnest child.
The movie chronicles the 20 years between Wilberforce's initial dedication to anti-slavery work and the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. When we first meet him, Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is a handsome, glib youth, a bit of a lightweight, tinged with piety. But when the fiery activist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) interrupts an elegant dinner by dumping on the polished board the gruesome iron shackles used by slavers to immobilize their victims, Wilberforce's career is set.
What follows is two decades' worth of relentless agitation against the commercial forces that have most of Parliament in their pockets. The campaign includes such modern-seeming tactics as boycotts of sugar refined by slave labor and exercises in consciousness-raising. In one memorable scene, well-heeled types are lured onto a yacht with champagne and a chamber orchestra, only to find themselves brought alongside a just-returned slave ship, whose reek of filth and death their scented kerchiefs cannot dispel.
As played by Gruffudd, Wilberforce comes across as an openhearted man who saves his scorn only for the most egregious of evils, a man who would prefer the quiet life of a pastor or botanist, who lolls on the grass discoursing with his servants or giving piggyback rides to his children.
You would never guess that the real Wilberforce threw in his lot with the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday and tried to get the British government into the business of converting the population of India to Christianity. What might now be regarded as the rough edges of his beliefs have been scrubbed away. Perhaps sensing that what's left over might be too bland to put at the center of an elaborate production, director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight return time and again to Wilberforce's addiction to painkillers in the belief, it seems, that ripeness for rehab can never fail to fascinate.
Wilberforce thus comes across as appealing, noble and not quite flesh-and-blood, in spite of his lightning-fast courtship of his independent-minded wife (Romola Garai). Fortunately, the fringes of the movie are crowded with splendid actors in vividly sketched parts. The always fascinating Michael Gambon brings to the role of Charles Fox a captivating mixture of high motives and low cunning.
Although Rufus Sewell turns in what for him is a subdued performance, his Clarkson emerges as a quirky, rather difficult customer with depths not evident in the title character. And as John Newton, the author of the hymn that gives the movie its name, Albert Finney roars lustily against iniquities wherever he sees them not least of all his own past as a slave trader on whose ships some 20,000 kidnapped Africans perished. The story of the genesis of this most beloved of spirituals does seem flimsily tacked on, but as an occasion for Finney's inspired growling, one isn't inclined to quibble with it.
"Amazing Grace" certainly feels uplifting. So much so that we might forget that the Slave Trade Act neither abolished slavery in the empire nor ended the trade in the Atlantic. As good as the movie is, it leaves us wanting a better one that brings out the ironic and even tragic side of Wilberforce's triumph. (PG) 111 min. ** S