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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
dir Michael Apted
scr Steven Knight
with Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Youssou N'Dour, Toby Jones, Stephen Campbell Moore, Nicholas Farrell, Nicholas Day
release US 23.Feb.07,
06/UK Samuel Goldwyn 1h51
Big wigs: Gruffudd and Garai
Filmgoers switched on to world politics will find a strong resonance in this 200-year-old story of the battle against the slave trade. Skilfully written and directed, the film is an involving drama, even if it's overly worthy and sentimental.
In 1797, Parliament member William Wilberforce (Gruffudd) was a spent force, exhausted after a decade of trying to put a stop to the slave trade, driven by his strong faith. His opponents (Hinds and Jones) insisted that the British Empire depended on this commercial resource; his powerful friends (Cumberbatch and Gambon) had political concerns of their own. So he was the lone voice, along with a fallen priest (Sewell), a former slave (N'Dour) and a trainee lawyer (Moore). Then he meets the opinionated Barbara (Garai) and finds strength to rejoin the battle.
The story is told slightly out of sequence, and the filmmakers botch the chronology. Besides a couple of vague subtitles, they never actually tell us when things are happening or how many years are passing. So watching the film requires the knowledge that Wilberforce's Abolition of the Slave Trade Act finally passed in March 1807. (Slavery itself wasn't abolished until July 1833, three days before his death.)
This is an incredibly important period in history, as it marks the beginning of political activism, including Britain's first grass-roots campaign. The relevance to viewers today couldn't be more provocative, as we contend with global warming, pre-emptive war and human trafficking (there are more slaves today than there were in 1797).
The cast is superb. Gruffudd holds the film together with charm and personality, and terrific chemistry with both Garai and Cumberbatch (as William Pitt, Britain's youngest-ever Prime Minister). Colourful side roles for Finney (as the composer of the emonymous hymn), Jones and especially Gambon keep things lively, as do intriguing turns from Sewell and Hinds.
So it's unfortunate that the film as a whole feels a bit plodding. Despite the intelligent script and detailed production design, the fractured narrative never grabs us as it should. Most viewers will be intrigued by the twisty historical tale, seeing it as a complex character study that never quite overcomes its TV-movie tone. On the other hand, those already passionate about the issues facing the planet will be fired into further action.
|Wendy, Tehachapi, CA: "I agree about the chronology--some of the flash backs are so long that when they flash forward, you've lost track of where you were to begin with. But subsequent viewings are easier to follow. My only other criticism is the film's name tagline ('Behind the song you love is a story you'll never forget'), both of which suggest that it's about John Newton and how he came to write 'Amazing Grace'. Now that really is a great story--just not what this film is about. Having said all that, I loved everything else about this movie. Acting, cinematography, music, cast, costumes--all are absolutely superb. The wonderful relationships are beautifully portrayed. There is an abundance of humor and wit, drama, political intrigue and quiet romance. I'm also grateful that I had not yet seen Ioan Gruffudd in Fantastic Four, which could have tainted my response to his performance in this story, which is deep and heartfelt. The story of Wilberforce's dogged perseverance in the face of rejection and ridicule is tremendously inspiring." (29.Aug.07)
© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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