Ioan Gruffudd finally comes of age, putting to bed his one-dimensional personas – Horatio Hornblower and his Mr Fantastic comic-book hero. It’s a cracking performance, nailing the commitment, faith and eccentricities of the character. The supporting cast, especially Rufus Sewell as the liberal preacher Thomas Clarkson, relax into their roles, wearing their wigs and their words lightly.
And what a script. Fluent, funny and yet faithful to the man and to the misery at the heart of the story. Wilberforce’s years-long campaign to abolish slavery is set in its political context. Taking its time, the film shows us the personal and social costs as Wilberforce’s health cracks and the political winds twist and turn.
History has rarely been so deftly handled at the movies. No dumbing-down, no hero-worship. No clichés, no preaching. Skirting round possible pitfalls, Amazing Grace pulls freshness out of each set-up. Whether speech-making or match-making, sparky dialogue and colourful characterizations carry the day. Neither manipulative nor browbeating, it’s refreshingly even-handed, giving equal credence to Christianity and humanity.
If the film’s focus lacks real bite, it’s because the cruelty of slavery is only heard of, not seen. But that’s another film – Roots or Amistad. Amazing Grace tells the story of the turning of the tide. Quietly impressive, it’s one of the best films of the year so far. Inspirational certainly but only by dint of a corking script and a top-notch cast.