Michael Apted is one of several British filmmakers (along with Michael Winterbottom, John Boorman and Stephen Frears) whose artistic humanity could never be put into question. Directing such films as Coal Miner's Daughter, Incident at Oglala, the medical ethics thriller Extreme Measures and the 7:Up documentary series, his 40-year dedication to issue-oriented cinema is an unapologetic testament to liberal willpower. Though competent, Apted's visual prowess is undistinguished. What sets him apart from similarly earnest filmmakers like Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, I Am Sam) is that his bleeding heart is refreshingly free of political guilt and condescension.
In charting the 20-year efforts of William Wilberforce's (Ioan Gruffud of The Fantastic Four) exhausting attempt to abolish the English slave trade, Apted has found a suitable metaphor for liberal humanists doggedly effecting change. As a history lesson, Amazing Grace is a handsomely mounted and respectful tribute to an important abolitionist. Unfortunately, Apted and his screenwriter Steven Knight forget that great historical events are rarely as interesting as the personalities behind them.
The crux of the issue is that Wilberforce is portrayed as less of a character and more of a position. We're given little insight into what drove this religious statesman to fight so hard for so many years. As he struggles to convince Parliament to end the slave trade, the conflict becomes little more than a war of speeches and sneers. No matter how persuasive his argument, Wilberforce's political opponents acted out of self-interest. Many had financial interests in slavery and they weren't about to vote themselves into bankruptcy. As a history lesson, it's pretty fascinating stuff. As a human drama, it's awfully bland.
Knight's script smartly steers clear of dwelling on the horrors of the slave trade and focuses on the politics and morality of those who held the reins of power. Unfortunately, his characters are terribly opaque. There are no personal epiphanies or internal conflicts for Wilberforce to resolve, only the stoic certainty of his cause. Gruffudd, a physical actor, succeeds in keeping his character believably humble but is unable to fill in Wilberforce's numerous blanks. In the end, we admire his efforts but have no idea what makes him tick.
Though Apted metaphorically links Wilberforce's health issues to the moral decay of Parliament's inaction, he doesn't have the poetic virtuosity to go beyond the obvious. A stronger director like Terrence Malick would spin something like this into cinematic gold. As it stands, Amazing Grace is a modest affair that doesn't live up to the importance of its subject.
Luckily, an impressive crop of British character actors signed on to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of Britain's slave trade. Toby Jones is wonderfully wicked as the duke of Clarence, Michael Gambon gives gravitas and personality as a surprise convert and Rufus Sewell has a nice turn as the uncompromising idealist Thomas Clarkson. The all-too-brief stand-out is Albert Finney as John Newton, the slave-ship captain turned minister who inspired Wilberforce and penned the sublimely beautiful "Amazing Grace." In two short scenes, Finney conjures a tormented but noble character out of thin air.
And it's here that Apted reveals his film's biggest flaw: Amazing Grace is about the wrong person. The horrors that Newton presided over and his endless quest for redemption would have made for some profound storytelling. The hymn that has inspired so many generations of people in their time of fear and grief is as perfect a song as has ever been written. And it came from a man guilty of crimes against humanity. If only Apted his taken a cue from his film's title.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.