Saturday, March 24, 2007

AMAZING GRACE - workmanlike but worthwhile biopic

In AMAZING GRACE, director Michael Apted (HBO's Rome) and writer Steven Knight (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS) deliver a workmanlike but worthwhile biopic of anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud). The film covers his early life as an MP, fired up by an ex-slave-ship captain turned preacher (Albert Finney) and his best friend, Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch). Despite the evidence of an escaped slave (Youssou N'Dour) and some popular support, every year Wilberforce's bills are beaten by vested interests in the form of Lord Tartleton (Ciaran Hinds) and The Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones.) Worse still, when the new French Republic declares war on Britain, Wilberforce and his radical friends (not least Rufus Sewell's Thomas Clarke) are seen as seditious. Despondent, and increasingly dependent on laudanum, Wilberforce contemplates defeat, before a fiery young woman played by Romola Garai prompts a renewed attack in a more helpful political climate and victory, via a cunning Fox is achieved.

The movie is not without its flaws. It will not win prizes for visual flair and feels the need to dress up its earnest history lesson with a little love story (Wilberforce and wife) and a little emotional manipulation (the blind preacher's final speech). History is teased into a palatable form: lords sit with commoners in parliament, for example. However, there is no doubt that this is a very well acted film, with a scene stealing cameo from Michael Gambon as Charles Fox and a finely nuanced performance by Cumberbatch as Pitt. And as someone with little prior knowledge of this issue I found the movie engrossing - an effective primer on the social and political backdrop to the anti-slavery movement in Britain. But, in fairness, I should warn viewers looking for the African viewpoint on slavery, that that lies beyond the scope of this particular project.

AMAZING GRACE is on release in the US and UK and opens in Australia in June.

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