If Masterpiece Theatre was part of the History Channel, it might turn out productions like Amazing Grace, a dramatization of the process by which England relinquished the slave trade exactly 200 years ago. Here, much of the credit for that historic event is given to William Wilberforce, whom Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd endows with equal parts political and religious fervor. And you have to wonder whether that's enough to build a character around. When the movie opens, Wilberforce, having already devoted 15 years to the abolitionist cause, looks sick and tired of proposing legislation that the House of Commons will reject all over again. But God is on his side, and so was the scriptwriter (Steven Knight), who all but nominates him for sainthood.
As dull as that might sound, the movie has a way of pulling you in. Gruffudd is a handsome man in the Colin Firth mode, and he's especially effective when Wilberforce is dancing circles around his opponents during parliamentary debates. But he also puts a nice Mr. Darcy spin on his scenes with Romola Garai, who plays Wilberforce's lovely yet spunky wife-to-be. The rest of the cast amounts to an embarrassment of riches: Michael Gambon, Albert Finney and Rufus Sewell on the side of the angels, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds on the side of pure evil. We don't really get a clear sense of how, over the course of 20 years, England went from pro- to anti-slavery, but we do get a sense of how high a price was paid, both before and during.