Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Amazing Grace (2006)

2006's Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce and his efforts to bring about the end of slavery. It is a very old fashioned historical biopic, the kind that Hollywood or Gainsborough here in the UK would regularly make from the '30s through to the early '50s. Indeed, it's so reminiscent of those stodgy black and white history lessons that you half expect to see Basil Rathbone and James Mason sitting on the Opposition bench in the House of Commons rather than Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones.

Another thing it has in common with those older movies is the - at best -  quaint and - at worst - unforgiveable fact that a film about race has just one substantial role for a black actor: the former slave and writer Olaudah Equiano played here by Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. The focus of Steve Knight's script may be fixed firmly on how awful slavery is, but it is seen only through the experiences of white people.

It's predominantly white cast are thankfully very accomplished though, working in Amazing Grace's favour. At the helm here is not Robert Donat, but Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, the politician and leading figure of the abolition movement. Gruffudd shot to fame here in the UK with the TV series Hornblower and he remains - to me at least - linked to that character. Perhaps as such, he never seems to have reached the dizzying heights he was once tipped for and perhaps expected (indeed it's interesting to see a pre-stellar stardom Benedict Cumberbatch play second fiddle to him here as a convincing William Pitt) and this is perhaps due to him lacking some substance and gravitas required for such leading man status. Nevertheless, he is always rather agreeable and maintains that quality here, playing to his strengths when showing both the compassion and the quirks of Wilberforce's character.

The divine Romola Garai co-stars as Wilberforce's love interest Barbara Spooner (The Guardian describing her character delightfully as a ''right-on sugar-boycotting babe'') who meets Wilberforce when he is convalescing with friends following his campaign's first defeat. She gives what is essentially an expositional role masquerading as a romantic subplot some much needed spirit and scenes come alive when she appears even though they're simply there to serve the flashback narrative of the plot and Wilberforce is too ill to truly match her flirtations. 

Other actors who manage to lift the spirits of this earnest but rather dull political biopic are Albert Finney as the repenting, born again former slave trader John  Newton (the man who wrote the hymn 'Amazing Grace') and Michael Gambon who literally steals one scene from a huge ensemble whilst seated in a corner with his eyes closed! The aforementioned Hinds and Jones also serve the piece well as the boo-hiss villains, Tarleton (who served as the template for The Patriot's ridiculous pantomime villain Tavington) and The Duke of Clarence aka the future King William IV; both men were outspoken supporters and defenders of the slave trade, though in truth it was the latter rather than the former as depicted in the film who claimed slaves in Jamaica lived happily and safely and far better than some of the working classes in England at the time.

On the whole this is handsomely mounted and historically accurate fare that holds a quaint afternoon matinee charm, but director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steve Knight must take the blame for producing something so lifeless.

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