'Grace': Earnest to a Fault

Friday, February 23, 2007

"Amazing Grace" follows the resolute efforts of 18th-century British politician William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) to persuade Parliament to pass a bill renouncing slavery. The movie, directed by Michael Apted, chronicles Wilberforce's many obstacles along the way, including a resistant political body (many MPs benefited, directly or through their constituencies, from the unholy trade), a war with the French and Wilberforce's ill health in his later years. (See In Focus on Page 29.)

The film also follows the equally uneven trajectory of Wilberforce's long friendship with William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who became British prime minister and worked to help him in his mission.

Unfortunately, "Amazing Grace" is about as bloodless and matter-of-fact as the above description. As written by Steven Knight, it seems so taken with Wilberforce's moral magnificence, it forgets to involve the audience, too. Even the scenes that show Wilberforce's heated exchanges with politicians in Parliament have the dull imprimatur of a historical docudrama. The only thing missing -- at least, to this mischievous sensibility -- is a Monty Python parody of all that terminal earnestness. This is a great shame, given Wilberforce's extraordinary achievement: eventually prevailing with an unpopular bill based purely on moral argument. Just as disappointing is the failure of the talented cast, including Albert Finney (as John Newton), Romola Garai, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Bill Paterson, to bring life to these dutiful proceedings. If "Amazing Grace" serves its most superficial purpose -- to educate the viewer -- it's hardly compelling viewing.

-- Desson Thomson

Amazing Grace PG, 117 minutes Contains mature themes involving slavery and profanity. Area theaters.

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