1780s London, and William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is a young MP struggling to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.
There’s little to connect this intelligent historical biopic with last year’s Omen remake. But both were made to fit a release date, in this case the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Unlike 06/06/06, March 25, 1807, is a date that bears remembering, and Michael Apted’s account of the time offers a handy history lesson, if a flawed character study.
We open on William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the leader of the Abolitionist movement, at the lowest ebb in his life as, exhausted and addicted to opium, he retreats to the country to recover his fighting spirit. Flashbacks take us through the struggle to date, until Barbara (Romola Garai) helps him to get his groove back.
The supporting cast contains an embarrassment of riches: Michael Gambon is barely window-dressing as an honourable politician; Ciarán Hinds lands one good speech and a handful of glares as Wilberforce’s chief opponent, while Infamous’ Toby Jones barely gets a word in. Only Albert Finney fares better, quickly convincing as the devout slaver-turned-preacher who wrote the eponymous hymn.
But this is Wilberforce’s film, and while Gruffudd nails the conviction and superhuman determination that he possessed, he doesn’t bring quite enough charisma to bear. This was, after all, one of history’s finest Parliamentary speakers, a friend and confidant of political operator par excellence William Pitt (Starter For 10’s Benedict Cumberbatch in another eye-catching supporting role), and a true English eccentric — singing hymns at his club and a soft touch who opened his home to strangers and animals alike.
Gruffudd does succeed in conveying Wilberforce’s dilemma, that of a man torn between vocations — the desire to spend his life in spiritual contemplation and the duty to end the great wrong of slavery. But the demands of the plot — the long campaign and its many principles — means that this is a film torn between intimate character study and grand, sweeping historical epic.
Theres so much story here that the characters dont have quite enough room to breathe, but its still a fascinating look at a time, and a man, worth remembering.