A Reel View: Amazing Grace
A Reel View
As a history lesson, Amazing Grace is okay. It stays reasonably true to the established record with minimal embellishment. However, as motion picture, the film is lacking in several key areas. The presentation is choppy, with lengthy sections devoted to the events occurring during short spans followed by jarring leaps ahead in time. Character development is perfunctory, with most individuals in the film falling into the "good, noble" camp (abolitionists) or the "evil, rapacious" camp (those in favor of continuing the slave trade). This occasionally causes Amazing Grace to play less like a movie and more like a morality play.
The film opens in 1797 and, through flashbacks and via forward narrative progress, manages to cover the span between 1782 and 1807. By highlighting key events during this 25 year period, Amazing Grace provides a window into the efforts of Parliamentary abolitionist William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), who was the driving force behind the United Kingdom's ban on slavery (which occurred in 1807). The main battleground is Parliament, where Wilberforce's small group of allies (including Nicholas Farrell and Michael Gambon) square off against the entrenched pro-slavery group (including Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones). Also in the biographical mix are the young and beautiful Barbara (Romola Garai), whose passion for William's beliefs lead them to the altar, and Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), an abolitionist and revolutionary who pushes William to use his power in the service of a better world.
Although attempts are made to develop William into a three-dimensional protagonist, they are only partially successful. The character comes across as a dour do-gooder whose only fault is that he becomes depressed when he can't change the world overnight. It takes Barbara to brighten his view and re-invigorate his optimism. Unfortunately, that's pretty much her only role. Actress Romola Garai is woefully underused; her character functions as little more than a pretty ornament on William's tree. Gruffudd, perhaps best known to mainstream movie-goers as Reed Richards from The Fantastic Four, is permitted the opportunity to do more acting than in the superhero movie, but this isn't a part that's going to earn him universal acclaim.
The rest of the cast is neatly divided between good guys and bad guys, and it's not hard to discern who's who. It's disappointing that director Michael Apted and his screenwriter, Steven Knight, choose to frame things with such stark contrasts; shades of gray would have made this a more compelling and powerful experience. It's a given that slavery is evil. However, in an era when it was a largely accepted way of doing business, not everyone who owned slaves or supported the slave trade was vile and despicable. Likewise, there were certainly abolitionists who would fail a nobility litmus test. In this movie, however, everything must be (no pun intended) black and white.
The film features an impressive supporting cast of respected British actors. Albert Finney has a small part as John Newton, the reformed slave trade captain who composed the hymn "Amazing Grace" (hence, the title). Michael Gambon is Sir Charles Fox, the abolitionists' most respected supporter. Ciaran Hinds, finished with playing Roman politics in the HBO series Rome (of which Apted directed three episodes), has moved on to the English variety, with Toby Jones as his toady. It's disappointing that so much talent has been assembled with so little to do.
Apted is without a doubt one of the foremost documentarians working today. His Up Series represents a cinematic hallmark. His feature credits are less certain. He has received praise for Coal Miner's Daughter and Nell, but less favorable reviews for some of his other efforts (Thunderheart, Blink). He has also directed a generic Brosnan Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. This latest entry on his resume is unremarkable - an introduction to Wilberforce that can serve as a primer to the uninitiated but offers little in the way of narrative or thematic complexity.
Movie Reviews and Criticism by James Berardinelli, reelviews.net.