Amazing Grace: The invisible man? 

Attention political junkies, history buffs, religious seekers and Anglophiles: Suppose there were a spiritual leader of seminal importance on the scaleof Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and you’d never heard of him? For many Americans, the period drama "Amazing Grace" will be their first exposure to English Member of Parliament William Wilberforce (1759-1833).

Wilberforce was a devout Christian abolitionist who not only helped spearhead the anti-slave trade movement in the Western world over 75 years before our Civil War but — along with his generational peer, British history’s youngest prime minister, William Pitt (1759-1806), and a cadre of progressive champions inside and outside of government — also set off a century of morality-based human rights advancements in health care, child labor, education and even animal rights that ushered in modern society as we know it.

"What I’m hearing from people is, ‘My God! We never knew this story,’ " British director Michael Apted said during a recent visit to Washington to promote the film and meet with U.S. lawmakers in his capacity as president of the Directors Guild of America.

"They are talking about how fun it is to see something they don’t know anything about. To an American audience, there’s something inspiring about seeing a completely fresh story," he says.

"Your fight in this country with the slave trade was fought in a much more dramatic arena. Whereas in England, as this film honors, it was fought in the corridors of power and also as part of a much wider reform movement which Wilberforce and these guys started," says Apted, who also directed acclaimed films on real-life figures Loretta Lynn ("Coal Miner’s Daughter") and primate advocate Dian Fossey ("Gorillas in the Mist").

This week’s production (a project of Walden Media, in which The Examiner’s corporate parent holds a major interest) stars Ioan Gruffudd of "The Fantastic Four" as Wilberforce, alongside Thespian greats Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell and Ciaran Hinds.

"I wanted to make a film about the power of politics," Apted says about his latest project, which traces the 20-year struggle to use procedural maneuvering and then-unprecedented activist pressure tactics to change hearts and laws in an economic system dependent on slave labor.

"What interested me about Wilberforce was that he had strong religious principles but he never allowed that to marginalize him out of the political world. His religion gave him strength to do the job, but he didn’t let it dominate his politics. He was as capable of doing a dirty trick as anybody."

In one scene, the Wilberforce faction gives the opposition free tickets to the horse races to lure them away from Parliament for a crucial vote. "He also made all sorts of unholy alliances," Apted notes. "There’s an interesting balance which I find intriguing between his spirituality and his pragmatism which I hope will resonate with people today."

Because of time constraints and the dictates of drama, factual history had to be slightly altered.

"I didn’t want to do it as a straight biopic, which is how it came to me," he says. "I wanted to play with time jumps and put the crucial political event right in the middle of the film and then cherry-pick my way through the background," the filmmaker explains. "You do have to make huge compressions, remove and combine characters and invent incidents. As long as you honor the spirit of it and the characters in it, that’s all you can hope to do."

And what rousing characters Michael Apted had on his hands to honor.

"Who knows what history 200 years from now will say about King, Mandela or Gandhi?" he says. "But Wilberforce did do a lot. He and his people started a social revolution between 1790 and 1830 that changed England forever."

Star lets the Wilber-force be with him

Tall, dark and smoldering Welsh-born actor Ioan (pronounced yo’-an) Gruffudd broke out from his period-piece specialty in 2005. He played the ringleader Reed Richards, aka the supercharged Mr. Fantastic, in the feature adaptation of Marvel Comics’ "Fantastic Four," returning later this year in a sequel.

Before that, he was best known for reeling through fictionalized history from an early bit part in "Titanic" (1997) to co-starring as the romancer Lancelot in "King Arthur" (2004) on film and anchoring the prestigious British-flavored A&E television miniseries as Commander Horatio Hornblower.

The 33-year-old Thespian returns to form and to uniform as turn-of-the-19th-century reform crusader William Wilberforce in this week’s "Amazing Grace."

Here’s what he had to say during a recent publicity blitz:

Examiner: It must be in your contract or something that you have to wear a fancy getup in your movies. No?

Gruffudd: Definitely! I have to have a costume of some sort. No, really, people often ask if I’m concerned about being typecast. I’m not because these have been great, noble characters in history and literature that I’ve played. ... With Wilberforce, I thought it would be great to play a hero that’s not a physical hero like a war hero. He’s not a man of action but a man of his words, morals and beliefs.

Examiner: With ferocious old English acting lions like Albert Finney and Michael Gambon in "Grace," did you ever worry about them scene-stealing?

Gruffudd: I don’t get worried about scenes being stolen from me. It bolsters your own performance. And if they’re taking some of the burden of carrying the movie by being so brilliant, it all adds to the power of the movie. ... The sad fact was that I only had a couple of days to work with Albert Finney. But what a pleasure! The guy is just a legend, a real lesson — not just in acting but in humanity.

Examiner: You have to sing the big title song in "Amazing Grace." How was that?

Gruffudd: I enjoyed doing it. I love singing. In Wales, we have big festivals for singing. I won the whole national competition, called The Eisteddfod, for folk singing in the under-age-11 group and then again 10 years later in the under-age-21 group.

Examiner: What will excite fans most about this summer’s sequel "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer"?

Gruffudd: The title itself. The arrival of the Silver Surfer is huge for them. And they won’t be disappointed. Also, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and I attempt to get married. Several times. But then the end of the world comes along to spoil our little party.

Examiner: When they call you Mr. Fantastic, um, does that apply in all areas?

Gruffudd: Well, of course. That was part of the audition.

Examiner: What did you have to do?

Gruffudd: I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Examiner: You’re finally set to marry your fiancée of seven years (actress Alice Evans) this September. Does she call you Mr. Fantastic?

Gruffudd: Every day. I insist on it.

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Sally Kline

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