Amazing Grace Review
By Joe Lozito
"Amazing Grace" tells the story of William Wilberforce, a member of the British parliament and evangelical Christian who became the leader of the Abolitionist movement at the end of the 18th century. The screenplay by Steven Knight lets the story unfold at first in flashback, eventually picking up the trail and continuing on in the "present" - a necessary technique considering Wilberforce's quest to abolish slavery took decades. What the film lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in earnestness and good intentions. This may not be the most well-told story, but it's one worth telling.
To play Wilberforce, Ioan Gruffudd quickly shakes off the mantel of Mr. Fantastic from the "Fantastic Four"
series. Mr. Gruffudd struggles to add some depth to a character whose single-minded determination seems almost superhuman at times. The film dips into the cutesy for a brief courtship with Wilberforce's soon-to-be bride Barbara Spooner (the appealing-enough Romola Garai). But while Ms. Garai makes Barbara the proto-neo-feminist, the couple's interplay would be more at home in a romantic comedy than a serious period piece.
Directed with unflagging sincerity (and peopled with an impressive array of British thespians, including Michael Gambon and Ciarán Hinds) by Michael Apted, whose amazingly varied output ranges from "Coal Miner's Daughter" to "The World is Not Enough"
, "Grace" tells its story with few shades of gray which, while noble, gets a bit boring at feature length. Adding some much-needed spice to the proceedings is Albert Finney as John Newton, the former slave ship captain who, after a spiritual awakening, becomes a pastor and pens over 200 hymns including the titular gem. Mr. Finney's performance is one of ferocity and regret which left me feeling that Newton's story might have made for a more interesting film.
"Amazing Grace" is being released to coincide with the British bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade. Interestingly, the film may resonate most with exhausted liberal Americans frustrated by the inability of a certain administration to affect change. As Wilberforce yearly proposes his abolition bill in the House of Commons, his fellow members of Parliament are shown to be stubbornly disinterested - going so far as to duck out on days when particularly boring laws are to be evaluated. Political frustration, it seems, knows no color. Ultimately, Wilberforce is able to cleverly use this lack of attention against them. Though, since slavery itself wasn't abolished for another quarter century, his victory is wisely played as one small step for man.