More muted rant than blessed hymn

Amazing Grace

on February 23, 2007 by Kevin Courrier
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A terrific subject becomes a tepid morality play in this late-18th-century costume drama about the abolition of slavery in Britain. Director Michael Apted paints in broad strokes, with metaphor alerts at every turn, as he traces the life of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), an abolitionist reformer who serves under his friend, the shrewd Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch). While Pitt opens doors for Wilberforce to barge through, opposition forces continually find ways to slam them shut, leaving Wilberforce a broken man. Finding love (a perky Romola Garai) and renewed willpower, Wilberforce rekindles his passion for the cause and continues the fight.

Suggesting an episode of Masterpiece Theatre for Dummies, Amazing Grace opens with the scene of a worn-out horse being whipped by its rider in an allusion to slavery that is embarrassingly basic. The picture accumulates so many obvious ironic touches that pretty soon it starts beating a dead horse itself. The issues themselves are so clouded by the redemption of Wilberforce that, when a former slave (Youssou N' Dour) dies, it happens offscreen, his passing treated as an afterthought next to Wilberforce's renewal.

Meanwhile, the performances throughout vary. Gruffudd is generally better in flashback scenes. Michael Gambon is in fine form as the opposition party member who changes stripes, biting into the role like a happy bull terrier. And Rufus Sewell, who suggests the dashing intensity of a young Terence Stamp, plays a radical abolitionist with a whisper of wit. Bu unfortunately, Albert Finney, playing a former slave trader, doesn't fare as well. He might as well be wearing a huge sign saying, "Guilty as Charged." As handsomely mounted as the movie is, it suffocates under the weight of being a bland costume melodrama. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N'Dour, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney
Director: Michael Apted
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Edward Pressman, Terrence Malick, Patricia Heaton, David Hunt and Ken Wales
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language
Running time: 111 min.
Release date: February 23, 2007

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