Dir. Michael AptedUK 2006 111mins.
A historical drama about the efforts of 18th-centuryBritish parliamentarian William Wilberforce to legislate an end to the slavetrade in Britain, Amazing Grace is aworthy but ultimately flat chronology. It will suffer by comparison with recentUK TV production such as Bleak Houseand Elizabeth I while US theatricalprospects are slim given the historical and geographical remove.
The filmdrowns in the nobility of its hero, failing to create a recognisablyhuman character in Wilberforce. This is the story of a good and godly man withno character flaws and a single-mindedness of vision that allowed him topersevere and finally persuade his peers after 18 years. And it sometimes feelsthat way.
All thesuperficial staples of British costume drama are present and first-class - thecoaches, the manor homes, the periwigs - but what is missing is an earthyconnection with the protagonist. From the moment Wilberforce (Gruffud) steps hatless from his coach to berate twofarm-hands for whipping their fallen horse, two things are apparent: he lovesanimals and is a god among men. Rather than knock this meddling aristocratbackwards into the muck, the two farmers reel back at the sight of the greatman.
Giventhat audiences are likely to agree that slavery was and remains a bad thing,the challenge in this film is making the historical personal. British societyhad a vested interest in the continuity of slavery but the only people Wilberforcefaces down in this film are the detestable prigs on the other side ofParliament. This black-and-white presentation leaves no room for subtlety, orshifting allegiances.
AsWilberforce, Griffud acquits himself admirably. Buthis presence and that of so many fine UK actors only highlights the adage thatno one can overcome an inferior script - especially one that is trying to cramso much history into less than two hours while simultaneously dumbing down the proceedings. After the epic vote, onedissenting aristocrat says "noblesse oblige", to which his neighbourbellows: "What the hell does that mean'" It could be argued that if noblesseoblige needs to be explained to an audience it might be better not to make thefilm at all.
Fromtime to time, secondary characters step out of the background, and there aresome interesting conflicted types who would make more compelling protagonists, likeAlbert Finney's curate, a former slave ship master who repented and then wrotethe hymn of the film's title. There is also Michael Gambon'sparliamentarian, who throws his lot behind Wilberforce and his followers andthen mutters "Any of you saints drink'" But this plaint points to the overallproblem: thank God for saints but they make for dull stories.
Ingenious Film Partners 2
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films