Amazing Grace **
Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Steven Knight
Ioan Gruffold as William Wilberforce
Albert Finney as John Newton
Benedict Cumberbatch as Pitt the Younger
Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox
Romola Garai as Barbara Wilberforce
Rufus Sewell as Thomas Clarkson
Youssou N'Dour as Oloudaqh Equiano
Toby Jones as Duke of Clarence
Stephen Campbell Moore as James Stephen
Ciaran Hinds as Lord Tarleton
111 Minutes(Rated PG for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language.)
Sitting through "Amazing Grace" was the equivalent of sitting through a history class where the teacher is neither charismatic nor interesting, and the main focus of the person who sits through it is on the hands of the clock. Luckily for me there is no clock in the theatre so my eyes cannot drift to it. Instead they drift to the clock on my cell phone, but I only checked to the point where every time I looked I was twenty minutes closer to the bell ringer. . .er, I mean the credits rolling. Now I like history, at least when it's taught well, and "Amazing Grace" is of the caliber that could be seen on PBS or the History Channel. The acting is very stale and even some of the top British actors that appeared in it seemed like they would rather have been somewhere else-the scenery and locations do not look authentic at all, and most of it seems like it was shot on a sound studio. A scene where the main character is speaking to a group of people while on a large boat looks very cramped, oddly enough. And lastly, the music is full of enough strings and violins to make any musician sick. The title is somewhat misleading as well, as any mention of the song "Amazing Grace" is limited to three different renditions of it, including one featured during the end credits, which shouldn't really count in that case. "Amazing Grace" manages to tell a history story in more time than it would take to read a book on the subject, and had I read a book on the subject I would have gotten the exact same thing out of it.
"Amazing Grace" tells the story of William Wilberforce, who in 1797 has come down with an illness, and has just completed his ongoing feud with Parliament on what to do about the slave trade. William is taking refuge at the home of his cousin and his wife, but he doesn't have the chance to rest for long when the two of them decide to set him up with Barbara Spooner, a longtime admirer of William's work. While courting her, William begins to tell her the tale of him adventure with England's politics. Back in the day, William and his friend William the Younger were making their way up the government ladder. William the Younger claims that he is third in line to become Prime Minister, and when that happens he wants Wilberforce by his side. Wilberforce begins to decide that he wants to form a movement to try and abolish the slave trade. As expected, this idea is criticized strongly in Parliament, especially by the Duke of Clarence and Lord Tartleton who will stop at nothing to destroy Wilberforce's ideas. William also gets supporters, especially by activist Thomas Clarkson, and former slave Olaudah Equiano, who opens people's eyes about what it was like to be a slave, and how in his country he was held in the same regard as a prince. William also gets support from John Newton, a former slave owner turned minister who penned the hymn "Amazing Grace" when he decided that he "once was blind but now I see." And from this point one William does what he can to abolish slavery, and show that all men are created equal in the eyes of God.
I read a book about two years ago in history class. The book was all about how textbooks for high school history classes end up editing out information that would make their country look bad. They are all full of the positive things, which end up telling a happy story, but sadly not an interesting one. I suppose that "Amazing Grace" could be filed under a version of that book relating to film historical pieces. The script by Steven Knight does not allow for any character to be more than their historical counterpart, and tells one of the dullest stories ever. There is no humanity to any of the characters, and everybody looks so wooden when they deliver their lines that scenes that should be inspiring and emotional end up being something I would see in a third grade play. I think this is why director Michael Apted focuses often on the love story between William and Barbara, because without it I wouldn't feel like I was watching people. That at least added a little bit of character to William, which is needed to make me want to root for him beyond the fact that there are strong ethics involved. I was surprised with the choice to make Ioan Gruffold the lead role, and he certainly does not have the power to carry a film on his own-after all, his last film was "Fantastic Four," and his next film is "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." He is somehow carried by the likes of Toby Jones, Michael Gambon, and Albert Finney-all better actors who have done better work, but then again they do not have much material to work with here. "Amazing Grace" does have a heart in the right place, and its intentions are nothing but good-but in the end it does not do anything to thrill or challenge the viewer. It is a history film in the lowest sense of the phrase. It is a story that could be told during my history class tomorrow, in probably half the amount of time that the period is-certainly not enough to stretch on to as long as this film is.