Cinema Signal:

William Wilberforce:
A Hero for Humanity
by Kevin Belmonte
(Paperback from Amazon)
. "Amazing Grace"

The title song, in my humble opinion, is the best song ever written. Be assured I haven't said that about any other. It is succinct and powerful with a melody that's unforgettable. If only the same could be said for this lugubrious historical drama that seems to have been made with a TV mentality, a medium in which its drawn out length would not have been felt so painfully.

As a tribute drama, it details the fight to end the slave trade in 18th century England and serves a bonnie good purpose as a history lesson. We learn that the English Parliament was loaded with members who had vested interests in slavery and were not about to voluntarily write themselves into bankruptcy.

One man stood alone, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, "Fantastic Four"), with the vision and sense of judgement to see the great insult to humanity that slavery was, which made the issue a nearly lifelong project for him. Representing Yorkshire, elected to the House of Commons at the age of 21, he was an uneasy MP, feeling that the fight was a losing one and that his life of service might be put to better use in a house of worship. But his close friend and ally William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose political strategies made him the youngest Prime Minister the island ever had, supported Wilberforce's abolition campaign and entreated the activist to slug it out for the people.

Bringing in the song as a noble bit of background is Wilberforce's friendship with and guidance by the very man who wrote "Amazing Grace" in atonement for his sins as a slave trader in his earlier years, John Newton (Albert Finney, "Big Fish").

Happily for our hero and for the movie, the idealist's human side is somewhat balanced by his meeting and romance with Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, "Nicholas Nickleby"), a headstrong woman whose superior nature is overwhelmed by how much her thinking has in common with the dashing young MP's -- a point made quite unignorable with an extended scene designed to explain the attraction that led to Wilberforce's marriage and house full of children.

Garai provides a fresh breeze in the stuffy atmosphere of the film, and gives us some relief from the implication that the Wilberforce-Pitt alliance might have been more than a merely friendly alliance.

In addition to Gruffudd's strong leading man qualities, a representative crop of British character actors are enlisted for the various leaders of Parliament, most significantly Michael Gambon ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") as Lord Charles Fox whose ultimate siding with Wilberforce was the straw that broke the back of the slaveholders in the House; Ciaran Hinds ("Miami Vice," "Munich") as Lord Tarleton, one of the leaders of that greedy bunch; Toby Jones ("The Painted Veil") as Tarltons' brother in arms; and Bill Paterson ("Miss Potter") as Lord Dundas, another one addicted to the possession of slaves.

A distinguished cast though not one, in the boundaries of a lackluster script, to cause it to rise very high in a dramatic sense and even less in a boxoffice-probability one. Like said, TV in vision, structure and execution. To think feature film as a delivery vehicle for it film is more ambitious than this telling of a worthy, little known, under-appreciated story justifies.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce
Condemning the slave trade in 18th century Parliament.

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