Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Stephen Knight
Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N'Dour.
Michael Apted is overlooked when discussing top directors, yet anyone who was involved in things like the Seven Up series*, Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, The World is Not Enough, Gorillas in the Mist, and Enigma. All were intelligent films noted for good acting and an eye for understated drama. And in 2006, he decided to spotlight an important but generally unknown historical hero: William Wilberforce.
The name means nothing to Americans, and probably not much to those in the UK.** But he was important not only in British history, but also in American history. He worked to ban the slave trade, and Amazing Grace is his story.
The film shows Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a member of Parliament and friend of the Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) taking on the issue of the slave trade, angering those who made a great deal of money trafficking in humans. With the support of his wife Barbara (Romola Garai), and inspired by John Newton (Albert Finney), the writer of the hymn that gives the movie its name, he manages to fight his way to ban the trade though mobilizing public opinion and some clever political wheeling and dealing.
The story is more than just a history lesson. It draws you in, mostly because the details of the fight are not well known. Sure, we know that the slave trade is bad now, but it's hard to remember that there were many who were willing to defend it, and who were dead set against any change.
Though the movie deals with a serious subject, it is not solemn about it. There a nice thread of humor throughout and the scene showing how they law was first passed is satisfyingly funny. Overall, it is one of the best and most entertaining film about a historical subject since Glory.
The movie did respectably at the box office, but didn't seem to stick in people's minds and was ignored at Oscar time. But the subject seems to have struck a chord in religious groups, since Wilberforce's feelings on the issue were formed from the hymn and its author.
Apted continues to direct (he's finishing up on the third Narnia film right now), but this is one of his best films.
*A series of films that interviews the same group of people as they go through life every seven years. So far, it's included Seven Up, Seven Plus Seven (14 Up), 21, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and 49 Up.
**I suspect he's mentioned somewhere in English History classes, but probably no more than a footnote.