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AMAZING GRACE

Director: MICHAEL APTED

U.K.| 2006. COLOUR. DOLBY DIGITAL STEREO. 111 MIN.


An amazing thing about this film—a biopic of William Wilberforce’s twenty-year campaign to abolish slavery—is that the political has more passion than the personal. If the spiritual, romantic side of Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is gently rendered, the film roars into life in the corridors of power, its Parliamentary scenes having a spectacle and gusto that seem properly Hogarthian. Wilberforce is not the shrewdest of tacticians, but while often upstaged by his principal foe, Lord Tarleton (brilliantly played by Ciaran Hinds), he finds an ally in Charles Fox (a rascally Michael Gambon), whose cunning proves invaluable when idealism seems an inadequate weapon against money and vested interest.

The film has been criticised for offering a white man’s view of slavery, but it is not attempting to emulate ‘Roots’ or ‘Amistad’: it is showing the political process by which a heinous practice was finally outlawed. If it stints on visual horror, it conveys slavery’s monstrousness in other ways: like, for example, in a remarkable scene when Wilberforce inveigles a polite gathering at a dockside concert into smelling a recently docked slave-ship, which reduces them all to nausea; or in Albert Finney’s powerhouse performance as a former ship’s captain whose hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ forms the humanistic base of the film. A fine and thoughtful craftsman, director Michael Apted often brings an ethical dimension to his entertainments, here showing how principled politics can bring about positive change. Two hundred years on, it is a lesson still worth heeding.—Neil Sinyard.

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