© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Center: Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in a scene

© 2007 Bristol Bay Productions, LLC.
at this movie and NOT seeing what it actually is
about. Yes, it deals with the issue of slavery --
but it is about the politics of the slave trade
that concerns the filmmakers. Therefore, the
audience is not going to see the actual effects
on the men, women and children who were
kidnapped from their homes in Africa and
transported in horrendous conditions across the

Originally, director Michael Apted wanted to
make a film with a contemporary setting that
dealt in some way with lobbyists and the effects
of special interests, but he was not able to
locate a decent screenplay. When he was
offered the opportunity to direct a biopic of
William Wilberforce, the man who spent years
introducing anti-slavery legislation in
Parliament, Apted agreed. His goal was to make
a film about "the white people who legislated
the slave trade and profited from it, and those
who fought to reform or abolish it." In that
respect, the director has achieved his intentions.

The film's structure is a bit awkward: it opens in
1797 when Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is ill and
heading for some rest at the country home of
Henry and Marianne Thornton (Nicholas Farrell
and Sylvestra Le Touzel). The Thorntons
seemingly are harboring an ulterior motive as
well -- they intend to introduce the bachelor
Wilberforce to the spirited and equally available
Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). Needless to
say, the first meeting doesn't go well, but on
the second occasion, the unattached pair find
common ground. Wilberforce spends much of the
night regaling Barbara with the story of his
efforts in Parliament.

So the film goes into flashback mode and
details Wilberforce's efforts alongside the
ambitious William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch)
to push legislation that would abolish the slave
trade. Of course, there is staunch opposition led
by the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones) and Lord
Tarlton (Ciarán Hinds).

Although his efforts have been defeated,
Wilberforce finds renewed strength thanks to
Barbara and he returns to Parliament and
continues to push for passage of the legislation
until 1807 when he wins a moral victory if not
outright abolition.

Apted directs with a firm hand and the film has
been gorgeously shot by Remi Adefarasin. The
large cast is generally good, with Gruffudd
serving as the strong anchor. There's fine work
from Albert Finney as John Newton, the former
slave ship captain who penned the lyrics to the
titular song after a religious conversion, Michael
Gambon as the crafty and sly Fox, and a nearly
unrecognizable Rufus Sewell as an eccentric
abolitionist. Garai registers in her few scenes,
although I wish she had more to do than serve
as a plot function. Jones and Hinds make for
fine villains, even if some of their scenes play
as a bit too over the top.

AMAZING GRACE has been scheduled to be in
theaters in time to mark the actual bicentennial
of Wilberforce's legislation. It's a worthy film
that provides an historical perspective for those
willing to seek it out.

Rating:             B
MPAA Rating:    PG for thematic material
                      including slavery and
                      some mild language
Running time:   116 mins.