Michael Apted's Amazing Grace takes its title from the hymn, which served as an anthem for abolitionists. Scripted by Steven Knight, Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) and his quarter-century campaign to end the British slave trade. We meet a 38-year-old Wilberforce in 1797 when he has become ill and is losing faith that he will ever convince Parliament to end the barbarous commerce in human beings. But while recuperating in the British resort city of Bath, Wilberforce meets a spirited and beautiful redhead named Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), who is so clearly his soulmate that they marry in less than six weeks. Much of the early part of the film arrives in flashback as Wilber tells Barbara of his conversion to the abolitionist cause and his then 15-year-old anti-slavery endeavors, all failed.
Wilberforce's story begins with religious conviction and inspiration. He hails from a wealthy mercantile family, but has little interest in business and lacks focus through his collegiate years at Cambridge until he makes the acquaintance of two people who will influence the rest of his life. One is William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), a gifted politician who will soon become, at age 24, the youngest Prime Minister in British history. The other is John Newton (Albert Finney), hymn writer and monkish Anglican clergyman who has embraced Christian piety as a refuge from his shame for once having bound human souls in chains and transported them in weeks of agony and filth from the coast of Africa to the cruel plantations of Jamaica. The young Wilberforce contemplates the ministry for himself, but Newton and Pitt combine to persuade him he can make a greater difference pursuing a political career. And indeed, though the path is longer than any would have imagined, he does.
Perhaps presuming that films such as Steven Spielberg's Amistad have already demonstrated the horrors of the slave trade, Amazing Grace is arguably too discreet in what it chooses to depict. We are shown the chains that bind the arms, legs and even heads of the trade's victims. Wilber is given a tour of a slave ship and measures himself against the 18-inch-high shelf in which human adults were forced to lie in their own waste for the weeks it took to sail the Atlantic. He describes the stench of the hold and the despair of the victims so great that some would throw themselves into the sea if brought on deck. The words of description we hear are searing, but less enduringly so, perhaps, than if they were dramatized. And I confess to moments of discomfort that this movie about slavery introduces us to but one slave, the gifted writer Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour).
Still, Amazing Grace has very much to recommend it. Its performances are uniformly fine, including those by Michael Gambon as Wilberforce's unexpected parliamentary ally Rufus Sewell as the most radical of the abolitionists and Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds as the most stubborn of Wilber's opponents. The debate itself reminds the viewer of arguments often waged, in our times about issues as divergent as protecting the environment and running drugs: if we abolish the slave trade, the economy will be ruined; if we don't transport slaves, someone else will do it anyway. And the picture is very skillful in illustrating a politician's role in nurturing a controversial issue. Wilberforce is the crusader, the tireless sparrow moving a mountain one pebble at a time while his friend Pitt is the political heavyweight, always boxing, like Muhammad Ali constantly moving, landing punches when he can, taking blows if he has to, lying back on the ropes to minimize damage when the opposition is stronger. Crusaders and pragmatists seldom get along, so the sustained friendship between these two giants packs a lot of emotional freight. And then there's the inspiration of Wilberforce's life-long perseverance. He never goes to the dark side, and he never gives up. Eventually, because he commands the moral high ground, he triumphs. And isn't that a story worth telling and savoring.