Morally irreproachable and flat as a pancake, Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace is set among bickering House of Commoners in late 18th-century London, but the movie belongs squarely to the currently blooming subgenre of white saviors of dark-skinned victims of empire. Or at least it would if Apted were able to bring a little excitement to the table. Just as Blood Diamond was about white men making the world safe for conflict-free earrings, Amazing Grace is the story of how England was won over to slavery-free sugar imports by a liberal member of Parliament. Only, being British, he talks — and talks, and talks — the opposition into submission. William Wilberforce, the real-life abolitionist who devoted his life to pushing antislave trade legislation through a hostile parliament terrified of waving goodbye to the British Empire, comes with grade-A credentials that deserve heroic treatment. What he doesn’t deserve is to be deified, sanctified and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes.
From the word go we feel the burden of the exhaustive research that went into making Amazing Grace. Steven Knight’s ponderous script is front-loaded with expository deep background and stuffed into an awkward structure that lumbers back and forth between Wilberforce the early idealist and Wilberforce the broken man. White as a sheet, plagued by nightmares and doubled over his laudanum-addicted intestines, he tells his blind date — a reform-minded lass named Barbara Spooner, played by the comely Romola Garai and earmarked, despite his bashful reluctance to jump her lovely bones, to become his wife — the sorry tale of his failure to ignite parliamentary conscience. Then, in slow flashback, we see the young Wilberforce (granite-jawed Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd), a rock star among parliamentarians, noble of countenance, fiery of rhetoric and implausibly lacking in earthly ambition. No conniving pol, he: Will, as we are encouraged to think of him, is much given to agonized chats with God while lying in wet grass as he strives to decide whether to become a man of the cloth or a player among the bewigged Commoners to whom the antislavery movement smacks of the nasty revolutions already under way in France and America.
Urged on by his old friend Pitt the Younger (the excellent, if weird-looking, Benedict Cumberbatch), also known as Billy, and an all-white posse of grass-roots activists — a single freed slave, played by musician Youssou N’Dour, is seen signing copies of his memoirs before conveniently dying of sorrow — Wilberforce is brought to the realization that there’s no inherent contradiction between being a man of God and a man of the world. Whereupon he throws back his broad shoulders and bursts into song, serenading a room full of dour Tories (among them Ciaran Hinds, a reliable practitioner of the patrician sneer) with the famous hymn that gives this guileless movie its title. It turns out that the lovely song “Amazing Grace,” which I had always thought was written by an American, was brought into being by John Newton, a former slave-ship captain so sickened by the cruelty with which slaves were treated en route to England that he spent the rest of his life atoning. Which, if nothing else, gives Albert Finney the chance to wear a sackcloth dress and an unaccustomed air of humility as he swabs church flagstones and unloads the sage counsel (“Wilber, you have work to do”) needed to galvanize Will into action.
Well, sort of. Slackly paced, suffused with tasteful Constable lighting and weighed down by a surfeit of chat, Amazing Grace hauls us responsibly through the fight to bring the good word to Parliament — a Sisyphean struggle that, even with the defection to abolitionism of Pitt’s sworn enemy Lord Fox (played by Michael Gambon, who keeps throwing off his wig to reveal tufts of unhappy hat hair), seems doomed to failure. Only at the end, spurred to renewed activism by Spooner, do Will and his band mount a grass-roots campaign and (thank God) lower their holier-than-thou selves to a little means-ends dirty work — the stuff that gets things done in politics, liberal or otherwise. Wilberforce was a sterling fellow who undoubtedly earned the standing ovation with which Apted caps this stolid movie. But after all that virtue, you can’t imagine what a relief it was to learn, even at the eleventh hour, that he wasn’t just a stiff upper lip.
AMAZING GRACE | Directed by MICHAEL APTED | Written by STEVEN KNIGHT | Produced by TERRENCE MALICK and ED PRESSMAN | Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films | Selected theaters