Amazing Grace: How sweet it is 

‘The abolition of slavery in America, like the Civil War that preceded it, has been well documented on film. Less well known, at least on these shores, is the story of those who sought, against furious opposition, to outlaw the practice in England and her possessions, which were no less commercially dependent on slave labor.

Michael Apted’s "Amazing Grace" recounts the heroic efforts of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), Parliament’s foremost advocate of abolition at a time when the very idea was considered radical and even seditious. Wilberforce, elected to the House of Commons in 1780 at 21, is a man slowly rediscovering his faith, and his early distaste for slavery is evident in his dealings with the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones), who wagers his servant in a low-stakes card game. Wilberforce bristles at the notion of reducing men to property, and as one of England’s youngest and most persuasive orators, he is in a unique position to do something about it.

That is, unless he gives up politics for the pulpit. Wilberforce is stirred by the words of his childhood preacher, John Newton (Albert Finney), himself a reformed slave trader who agonizes over the thousands of lives he helped ruin. The young MP is tempted to follow his mentor into the clergy, but at the behest of his friend, Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), he stays in Parliament, using his political clout to achieve goals set by his faith and conscience.

His quest is not without pitfalls. Flanked by aspiring revolutionaries whose motives and allegiances are called into question, Karl Rove-style, by his rivals, Wilberforce faces a brutal campaign that tests his convictions to the core. But with perseverance, the backing of the universally respected Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) and some slick legal maneuvering, his abolitionist dream comes to fruition. Years of parliamentary martyrdom take their toll on Wilberforce physically, but he champions his cause to the end.

"Amazing Grace" is a fitting tribute to Wilberforce’s legacy, an informative history — as well as a richly rewarding drama — that deftly conveys England’s turbulent political climate during and after the American Revolution. Steven Knight’s script is witty without seeming preachy, and Apted’s direction, as we have come to expect during the course of his illustrious 47-year career, is stylish and self-assured.

Equally strong is his cast. Rufus Sewell, as far-left revolutionary Thomas Clarkson, is quietly effective, and Finney makes the most of the scenes in which he appears, which are regrettably few. Gambon, most recognizable to Americans as Professor Dumbledore in the "Harry Potter" movies, adds a light touch as a grizzled curmudgeon who lends his considerable weight to Wilberforce’s cause.

But the real star is Gruffudd, who perfectly captures the essence of a man possessed by a singular moral vision. Here, his talents are on full display, as he infuses the material with the kind of passion that was missing from his star turn in "The Fantastic Four." His Wilberforce is a man to be reckoned with.

Amazing Grace ****

Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney

Written by Steven Knight

Directed by Michael Apted

Rated PG

Running time 1 hour, 51 minutes

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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