Morally irreproachable and flat as a pancake, Michael Apted's Amazing Grace is set among bickering House of Commoners in late-18th-century London, but the movie belongs squarely to the blooming subgenre of Whites Saving Dark-Skinned Victims of Empire. Or at least it would be, were Apted able to bring a little drama to the party.
Just as Blood Diamond was about white men making the world safe for conflict-free earrings, Amazing Grace is the story of how England was won over to slavery-free sugar imports by William Wilberforce, a liberal member of Parliament. Only being British, he talks . . . and talks . . . and talks the opposition into submission. Wilberforce, the abolitionist who devoted his life to pushing anti-slave trade legislation through a hostile Parliament terrified of waving goodbye to the British Empire, comes with grade-A hero credentials. Still, he doesn't deserve to be deified, sanctified, and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy. And that's just in the first 10 minutes.
From the word go, we feel the burden of the exhaustive research that went into making Amazing Grace. Steven Knight's ponderous script is front-loaded with expository deep background and stuffed into an awkward structure that lumbers back and forth between early Wilberforce the idealist and late Wilberforce the broken man. Will, as we are encouraged to think of him, tells in flashback the sorry tale of his failure to ignite Parliamentary conscience. Listening to his woe is blind date Barbara Spooner, a reform-minded lass played by Romola Garai and earmarked, despite his bashful reluctance to jump her lovely bones, to become Will's wife and cheerleader.
As rendered by the granite-jawed Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, young Wilberforce is a rock star among Parliamentarians: noble of countenance, fiery of rhetoric, and implausibly lacking in earthly ambition. Will is much given to agonized chats with God while lying in wet grass as he strives to decide whether to become a man of the cloth or a player among the bewigged Commoners, who fear that the anti-slavery movement smacks of the nasty revolutions already under way in France and America.
Urged on by his old friend Pitt the Younger (the excellent if weird-looking Benedict Cumberbatch), an all-white posse of activists, and a single freed slave who is seen signing copies of his memoirs before conveniently dying of sorrow, Wilberforce is brought to the realization that there's no inherent contradiction between being a man of God and a man of the world. Whereupon he squares his broad shoulders and bursts into song, serenading a roomful of dour Tories with the famous hymn that gives this guileless movie its title.
Slackly paced and weighed down by a surfeit of chat, Amazing Grace hauls us responsibly through the fight to bring the good word to Parliament. It's a Sisyphean struggle that, even with the defection to abolitionism of Pitt's sworn enemy Lord Fox (Michael Gambon), seems doomed to failure.