Impressive cast can’t save Amazing Grace from juvenile production
There’s no lack of talent and topicality with the biopic/historical drama Amazing Grace, but it really ought to have been better than it is. The story of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and Britain’s struggle to abolish the slave trade deserves something more substantial, and less confectionary, than what it gets here.
Director Michael Apted and an impressive cast have plenty to show for their efforts, but the central strategies of Steven Knight’s screenplay seem distracting in general and misguided at best. Wilberforce, a staunch Christian and a crusading politician, is a fascinating figure in many respects, and yet Apted and Knight apparently felt obliged to frame this tale of religion, politics, racism and international trade as a feel-good success story with conspicuous touches of glamour and romance that lend a panderingly juvenile air to the production.
The Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd brings plenty of intelligence and charisma to the role of Wilberforce, but performance and characterization alike are diluted by a scenario that insists, repeatedly, on nudging the biography toward various clichés of inspirational melodrama—drug addiction, disease, a cutesy courtship and much political grandstanding (much of it decked out in 20/20 hindsight as well). At its weakest, the film verges on a daffy marriage of politics and entertainment, replete with motivational lectures, crowd-pleasing antics and heartening musical moments.
Still, the quality of the subject matter shines through as often as not. Confirmed Anglophiles will probably find it irresistible for its handsomely theatrical cast, and so much the better that this account of a pivotal moment in the history of Britain (and the rest of the English-speaking world) has the benefit of star performers who are from Wales (Gruffudd), Ireland (Michael Gambon), Scotland (Bill Paterson), Oxford (Toby Jones), Manchester (Albert Finney), Middlesex (Rufus Sewell) and Senegal (Youssou N’Dour). And having Jeremy Swift around as a butler who occasionally quotes Francis Bacon is typical of the film’s moderately substantial pleasures.
The title refers to the hymn of the same name, and that piece of movie-friendly music is put to rousing use several times in the film. There’s nothing gratuitous about this—the hymn was written by one of Wilberforce’s mentors, a monkishly penitent preacher/mariner (played by Finney) who was once a captain of slave ships. Stuff like that makes you glad that someone thought to put this story in a movie, and sorry that Apted and company weren’t able to do it more justice.