Blending period drama with message-driven political wrangling, Amazing Grace is as earnest and well-intentioned as it is unsurprising.
It's the late 18th century, and the African slave trade is thriving in the British Empire, bringing profits to both homegrown shipping centers like Liverpool and far-flung sugar and tobacco plantations in the Americas. All those pounds and pence encourage many bewigged House of Lords members to turn a blind eye to slavery's terrible human cost--until William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) forces them to pay attention. A rich young idealist inspired by John Newton (Albert Finney)--the former slave ship captain who wrote the hymn ''Amazing Grace''--Wilberforce struggles for more than 15 years to pass a law to end slavery, risking his health and career in the process. He almost gives up, until a fortuitous meeting with beautiful Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) re-ignites his passion for the cause.
One of the best things Amazing Grace has going for it is Gruffudd's enthusiastic, heartfelt performance. Probably best known to American audiences as Horatio Hornblower, the Welsh actor is no stranger to period drama, and his ease in knickers and puffy shirts helps ground the film and make Wilberforce an accessible, down-to-earth hero rather than a crusading zealot. Meanwhile, with her arch looks and knowing smiles, Garai gives her relatively thankless role--basically, Barbara is an excuse for exposition-driven flashbacks--a spark of fun. Finney does a little (mostly justified) scenery chewing as Newton, while fellow veteran Michael Gambon has some delightfully devilish moments as Wilberforce's unexpected political ally, Lord Charles Fox. And Rufus Sewell, who often ends up playing smooth baddies, is both witty and wily as fervent abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.
Considering that director Michael Apted is the man behind the series of groundbreaking British documentaries that began with Seven Up!, Amazing Grace is almost quaintly straightforward and sincere. There's no question that William Wilberforce fought for a good cause or that he was a decent man who used his influence to make the world a better place. But, at least in the movie, that world doesn't have too many shades of gray in it, which--while it helps keep the story on track--isn't exactly realistic. Some of the movie's most intriguing scenes follow Wilberforce and his gang of fellow activists as they desperately lobby for votes--proof that the political process hasn't really changed that much in the last 200 years. Had the movie delved more deeply into the complicated back story of Wilberforce's long struggle, it might have delivered a message that modern audiences aren't already sold on.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.