March 1, 2007

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Amazing Grace (PG)
The British empire slowly comes to the opinion that slavery is bad in Amazing Grace, a mostly straightforward tale of how the British parliament outlawed slave trade.

Which seems like an interesting if somewhat dry topic for a movie until you consider that America didn’t emancipate slaves until 1865, after first going to war in part because of the issue and then passing an amendment (the 13th) which universally freed all slaves. (Our foreign slave trade ended about the same time as Britain’s did in the early 1800s.) Here, the slave trade is ended (seting the path for the eventual emancipation of all British slaves in the 1830s) through political maneuvering and debate — a lot of political maneuvering and decades of debate.

The movie follows William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a member of Parliament who has essentially been born again. In one of the flashbacks that tell the story of his life (the movie starts somewhere toward the end when he is physically ill from his so-far failed efforts to end the slave trade), Wilberforce, a promising young politician, toys with the idea of a more pastoral life devoted to God. His friend, the equally promising young politician William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), wants Wilberforce to stay in government and help him become prime minister, a position beyond his years but which he intends to try for anyway. To nudge Wilberforce closer to a life in wigs rather than sandals, Pitt introduces him to a group of anti-slavery crusaders. Knowing that the horrors of slavery will move his friend to act, Pitt urges him to stay in politics and help him put an end to it.

Wilberforce is an eloquent speaker who, as we later hear from the woman he marries, is adept at getting public support, especially starstruck female public support. But he’s up against tough political forces. Slave-trading interests control a large chunk of the Parliament and have the tacit approval of the monarchy. Though Wilberforce eventually gets politically savvy wise old man Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) on his side, the just as politically astute Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds, still in his Julius Caesar’s robes) is against him.

If this were a modern American movie about some political movement, we’d have scenes of undecided politicians being worked and haggled with, of activists filled with fire for the cause, of pragmatic politicians doing the right things for shady reasons and of a team of legislators keeping an up-to-the-minute count of the vote. Though the era and the form of government are different, Amazing Grace has a similar kind of poli-sci geek energy. The movie is at its best toward the end, when Wilberforce and his gang decide that a straight-up vote might not get them what they want and the way to start to knock down the laws upholding slavery is to work the system and attack the business through more innocuous means, such as obscure shipping and commerce statues. Though not overtly about the mechanics of British legislation, the movie does give even a neophyte to Parliament a basic understanding of how it works and what can make it an occasionally entertaining form of government. (See the “questions to the prime minister” sessions on C-SPAN some Sunday night. If our House worked this way, C-SPAN would get better ratings than American Idol.)

Elevating this from the level of History Cannel dramatization are the performances that seem so utterly natural, as though British actors were born with portrayals of Lord Foxes and Pitt the Youngers in their operating systems. Gruffudd is not extraordinary but he also does not get in the way of his character; for all that the actor isn’t aflame with charisma he doesn’t stop us from believing that Wilberforce was a magnetic fellow.

The trouble with Amazing Grace comes when it tries to reach beyond the British history reenactment. Sweeping scores, an awkwardly crammed-in romance, half-developed looks into Wilberforce’s soul and the need to return to the story behind “Amazing Grace” the song (it was written by a former slave trader turned minister who is Wilberforce’s friend) slow down the action of the story and get in the way of highlighting the simple greatness of Wilberforce’s mission and his accomplishments. B-

Rated PG for thematic material involving slavery and some mild language. Directed by Michael Apted and written by Steven Knight, Amazing Grace is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Samuel Goldwyn Films.