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Amazing Grace (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Although too long and too slow, this is a well-done biopic of William Wilburforce (Ioan Gruffudd), born in 1859, who was a Cambridge classmate and buddy of William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who a few years after graduation became England’s youngest Prime Minister, serving 1781-1801 and 1804 until his death in 1806.

Wilburforce was to the manor born, but, instead of opting for the easy life, became a Member of Parliament when he was but 21 years-of-age, and devoted two decades to ending the British slave trade.

Gruffudd gives a valiant effort in trying to capture Wilburforce as a pious, dedicated revolutionary. He is greatly aided, fortunately, by strong performances by Albert Finney as John Newton, a reformed slave ship owner, and Michael Gamdon as Lord Charles Fox, both of whom were stalwart supporters of Wilburforce’s efforts.

The other side is led by Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds, in a good performance) and The Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones), one of the sons of King George III (and the brother of Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, who was the father of Queen Victoria), who mostly just sits around and agrees with Tarleton, looking and acting a lot like Truman Capote. As in the United States, Tarleton and the Duke of Kent argued that abolition of the slave trade would be dynamite to the English economy. Wilburforce’s argument was about the immorality of the slave trade and what it did to people who were human beings. There is a startling analogy here to the arguments today about abortion.

The film is marred by a sloppy script (Steven Knight), which has all of the characters apparently completely oblivious of the English language. Throughout, these highly educated people show total ignorance that a pronoun used as the object of a preposition must be in the objective case, not the nominative. Phrases like, “by who” abound. With these people butchering the King’s by making these constant grammatical mistakes English with their oh, so proper British accents, is like fingernails scratching across a blackboard.

The film is further marred by Director Michael Apted’s lack of pace. This is a story of a man on a journey that at first seems quixotic. But he perseveres, with the help and support of Newton, Fox, Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell, in a disappointing turn), Oloudaqh Equiano (Yassou N’Dour), a freed slave, and his wife of Wilburforce’s same mind, Barbara Spooner Wilberforce (Romola Garai). But Apted tells it in 111 minutes, which is at least 20 minutes too long. A good film editor could have made this into an entertaining, tight 90 minute film, without losing any of the story or suspense.

As it is, it’s still an entertaining film, one of which we need more, that tells a good story with first-rate acting, and is informative as well. I enjoyed it, although I did look at my watch more often than I would have liked.

February 24, 2007