Michael Apted's William Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace is yet another film documenting Africans' suffering in the slave trade by examining the toll such a horrific injustice inflicted on the troubled consciences of well-to-do Caucasians. And as an anti-slavery message movie, it takes a bold stand against a practice that Great Britain outlawed two centuries ago. Yet Amazing Grace nevertheless succeeds, thanks to a surplus of passion and a surprising amount of droll humor.
In Apted's film, the abolitionist cause infects idealistic politician Ioan Gruffudd like a virus that quickly consumes his life and career. Aided by a motley gang of abolitionists and men of the cloth, Gruffudd yearly presents Parliament with a bill banning slavery, only to have it stricken down by the slave trade's well-heeled supporters. Michael Gambon and Albert Finney contribute flavorful supporting turns as, respectively, a clever, enterprising politician who becomes one of Gruffudd's most important allies, and "Amazing Grace" scribe John Newton, a former participant in the slave trade haunted by ten thousand African ghosts whose unseen spirits take on an almost physical presence. Romola Garai adds a very welcome presence as a gorgeous abolitionist whose marriage to the gaunt, ghostly, laudanum-addled Gruffudd illustrates that righteous men don't always have to wait until the afterlife to receive rewards for being just and virtuous.
Screenwriter Steven Knight, who also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, nicely undercuts the project's inherent preachiness with dry wit and an engaging depiction of the British parliament as a vicious realm where debate is a treacherous blood sport. Unlike its subject, Amazing Grace won't change the world, but its quasi-religious sense of conviction proves rousing. Apted's unexpected crowd-pleaser is inspirational, but also surprisingly entertaining.