The best thing I can say about Amazing Grace is that its trailer is entirely misleading: Although it’s indeed blandly earnest and often uninvolving, it is never earnest and uninvolving in quite the way that we expect. The film has almost nothing to do with the song from which it takes its title; we meet its composer, John Newton (Albert Finney), only twice, briefly, and are never subjected to a recreation of its composition, as the trailer implies. Instead, the film recounts — with reasonable if not scrupulous fidelity — the 20-year effort of William Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons, to outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire. Director Michael Apted has constructed the film as a flashback, as Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) shares his past with Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), the woman he will marry.
Amazing Grace is like a historical flip-book, a facile skimming of events that makes them no more compelling than its tepid love story. Wilberforce is supposed to be a proud, headstrong man, a wit and a gadfly, both earnest and egotistical enough that he considers himself personally responsible for the reformation of English society. But for such a single-minded obsessive, Gruffudd’s Wilberforce certainly isn’t very dynamic, even in the earlier scenes, and it only gets worse as, over time, a bad case of colitis and an attendant addiction to laudanum make him stooped, sallow, and hollow-eyed, like the doomed Roderick Usher.
Wilberforce, we learn, was elected to Parliament while still in his early 20s but considered leaving government for a more contemplative life only a couple of years later, following his conversion to Anglicanism. Seeking to induce him to retain his office, Wilberforce’s good friend and future Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) sets up an informal symposium on the slave trade. Like any group of committed liberals, the invited speakers are excitable, unruly, contentious, and often insufferably self-righteous. They include, among others, Oloudaqh Equiano (Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour), a former slave who shares his personal horror story of being treated — and branded — as property, and the fervent abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell). Naturally bug-eyed, Sewell is perfectly cast as a half-mad idealist, but his crazed look undermines his character’s credibility, particularly later in the film when he begins advocating revolution and a form of socialism.
In contrast to Sewell’s eerie intensity, Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) is pure dead weight, quite possibly the least charismatic actor ever to be elevated to leading-man status, stolid and tiresome at his best, which he certainly isn’t here. Film actors don’t all have to be sexy and suave, but they do need to be compelling enough for us to want to watch them — which can often translate into sexiness, or at least some kind of appealing screen presence — and a compelling quality is that much more important if they’re on the plain side. There’s something so terminally gray and bland about Gruffudd and his ho-hum near-handsomeness that it could only be overcome by a real spitfire, which is just what he isn’t.
Having cast a dull lead, the filmmakers do their damnedest to ensure that he stays that way, giving Gruffudd little interesting to do. All of his actions in the film follow from his unseen religious conversion, which could have made for quite a dramatic moment, yet the movie glides right past it. And we don’t get to see his early, pre-conversion years as a rake, either, so there’s no contrast to make the character more complex. In the film’s opening scenes, when we learn that Wilberforce is in Bath for the restorative waters and that his cousin Henry Thornton and his wife Marianne (Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel) are trying to set him up with a woman of their acquaintance, I briefly hoped for some Austen-style romantic intrigue, but we’re denied even that diversion.
What we do get are some excellent supporting performances from some of the top British and Irish character actors currently working, such as Toby Jones (Infamous, The Painted Veil) as the vile Duke of Clarence, Ciarán Hinds (The Nativity Story, “Rome”) as the pragmatically pro-slavery Lord Tarleton, and Michael Gambon (who’s in everything, it seems) as Wilberforce’s unexpected ally Lord Charles Fox. But even the best performances can be weakened by a script as lame as Steven Knight’s, in which all the characters speak in epigrams of wildly varying quality. Barbara, being only Wilberforce’s interlocutor and thus unable to do more than comment on the real action, is particularly given to them. A couple of my favorites are “It seems to me that if you have a bad taste in your mouth, you spit it out, not constantly swallow it back,” and “When people stop being afraid, they rediscover their compassion.” Wilberforce is a tool as well, though, so he marries her anyway.
Amazing Grace is a film of ideas and ideals, of the conflict between historical forces, but it’s also predictable and sleazily manipulative, as when it cheaply and insufficiently manufactures suspense before the climactic parliamentary vote or when Wilberforce’s magnificent singing voice fortuitously returns at his wedding as the assembled party sings, of course, “Amazing Grace.” It has a theme that’s intended to resonate with current world events: that of speaking unpopular ideas during time of war. But the people who’ll bother seeing this film don’t need to be gingerly tapped on the shoulder and asked to consider that idea in a new light.
The whole thing feels a bit smug and complacent, as if having a worthwhile subject were the only requirement for making a worthwhile film, and Apted directs in a respectable “Masterpiece Theatre” style that effectively drains away any inherent drama that hasn’t been squandered already by the bland cast. What we learn of slavery in the film is mostly hearsay with a few illustrative images; it’s all familiar and yet so much distanced both by time and its presentation that our outrage is rote, if we feel any at all. How, really, are we to be outraged when the film’s dramatic focus isn’t the suffering of the slaves but that of Wilberforce as he nobly, dully re-introduces the same bill in each session of Parliament for a couple of decades? A commendable effort, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of exciting cinema.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Amazing Grace / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | February 28, 2007 | Comments ()