[Screen It]

(2007) (Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch) (PG)

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Drama: A late 18th century member of Britain's Parliament must overcome various obstacles as he sets out to abolish his country's involvement in the slave trade.
It's 1797 England and Parliamentary member William Wilberforce (IOAN GRUFFUDD) is ailing and has arrived at his cousin's estate for a little recuperation from a bout with colitis as well as a long and arduous battle with other politicians over abolishing his country's involvement with the slave trade. There, his cousin and that man's wife try setting up William with Barbara Spooner (ROMOLA GARAI), a woman of equal mind who's long been an admirer of William's efforts. While the two initially cast aside the matchmaking effort, William soon tells her his tale.

Going back a number of years, he and his friend William Pitt the Younger (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) are young upstarts in Parliament, and thanks to Wilberforce's evangelical leanings, he's decided to introduce legislation to ban slavery. He immediately runs into opposition in the form of most everyone else, but most notably the Duke of Clarence (TOBY JONES) and Lord Tarleton (CIARAN HINDS) who set out to stop his efforts.

William gets reinforcement from activist Thomas Clarkson (RUFUS SEWELL) as well as freed slave Olaudah Equiano (YOUSSOU N'DOUR) who opens the others' eyes about the horrible conditions afflicting slaves. With additional aid from former slave trader turned minister John Newton (ALBERT FINNEY) as well as Parliament member Lord Charles Fox (MICHAEL GAMBON), William fights the good fight over the next several years, and tries to overcome various obstacles as he sets out to abolish England's slave trade.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
When it comes to the end of slavery and the furthering of civil rights for people of color, most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with the efforts of Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Booker T. Washington and, much later, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks.

I doubt, however, that few outside of Britain have heard of, let alone are familiar with William Wilberforce. Yet, his efforts turned out to be just as pivotal toward the slave trade as those who followed in his footsteps. And that's because he was the late 18th and early 19th century member of Parliament best known for his long fight for the British abolition of slavery.

For those who'd like to see the equivalent of the Cliff's Notes version of the man's story -- rather than do some research or actually crack open a book to read about him and his cause -- you can now watch part of it and him in action in "Amazing Grace."

Named for the hymn penned by a former slave trader turned minister and eventual abolitionist (that being John Newton), the film is generally well-made, features solid to strong performances, and is certainly earnest in its approach at telling the story of Wilberforce and those who aided his quest. Despite all of that, however, it never really jumps off the screen to engage the viewer, except by default in terms of what these men were trying to accomplish in what were, at best, trying circumstances in trying times.

As directed by Michael Apted from a script by Steven Knight, the film starts in the year 1797 when a weary, ill, and rather disillusioned Wilberforce (a terrific Ioan Gruffudd) arrives at his cousin's estate for a little R&R. Despite only being 38 years of age, he looks, acts and feels much older, no thanks to his long crusade to bring about abolition in his country. With the catalyst being the presence of a pretty, young woman (Romola Garai), he then recounts his tale that forces the story into rewind.

We then see a more energized young man as he begins his quest, as well as those who will affect him one way or another. On the good team is Benedict Cumberpatch as the country's youngest Prime Minister, Rufus Sewell thankfully not playing the bug-eyed lunatic as usual (although his character still proposes radical solutions), and musician turned actor Youssou N'Dour as a former slave turned activist. Thespian heavyweights Albert Finney (as the guilt tortured Newton) and Michael Gambon as a wily politician round out William's supporters.

On the other side of the aisle -- literally and figuratively -- is Toby Jones (who's suddenly appearing in a number of art house flicks) and the always-reliable Ciaran Hinds playing his Parliamentary cohort who similarly opposes the do-gooders and their cause.

We never really know what makes these two tick -- are they bad or just practical men who see the cessation of the slave trade as a bad business idea -- and that thus sucks some of the life out of what could have been some highly charged, dramatic fireworks between the opposing sides.

The result is a rather bland and far too stoic portrayal of the historically pivotal events. Apted doesn't help matters by jumping back and forth between the time periods, thus diminishing either's chance of building or maintaining some much needed dramatic momentum.

This is the sort of film that needs to engage the viewer to that point that he or she roots for the protagonist to succeed, not only because it's right, but also due to their caring about the character who they want to win.

What we get instead is something akin to an educational film you might see in school. It's handsomely produced, and the acting is good, but it's about as exciting as sitting through an old history class as taught by a monotone teacher. Its heart is in the right place, it just needs a stronger pulse. "Amazing Grace" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 24, 2007 / Posted February 23, 2007

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