Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
United Kingdom/USA, 2006. Bristol Bay Productions, Ingenious Film Partners, Sunflower Productions, Ingenious Film Partners 2, Walden Media. Screenplay by Steven Knight. Cinematography by Remi Adefarasin. Produced by Patricia Heaton, David Hunt, Terrence Malick, Edward R. Pressman, Ken Wales. Music by David Arnold. Production Design by Charles Wood. Costume Design by Jenny Beavan. Film Editing by Rick Shaine. Toronto International Film Festival 2006.
Here’s a rarity: a sumptuous period piece that takes one back to the age of horse-drawn carriages and candlelit drawing rooms without a single bodice ever being ripped or a handsome nobleman marrying beneath his class. Michael Apted’s best film in years uses the best trappings of period drama (particularly the beautifully artistic camerawork by Elizabeth‘s Remi Adefarasin) as the backdrop for a witty and intelligent screenplay, following the path of William Wilberforce as he forges the way for the abolition of slavery in the British empire. The task, which takes him nearly twenty years to accomplish, was inspired by the titular hymn written by a former slave-ship captain who turned to an ecclesiastical life in order to escape his personal demons. Wilberforce pounds the evils of slavery, an industry that reinforced the British empire’s dominion thanks to the success of the sugar trade, into the ears of deaf, greedy politicians who would die before they’d ever see their wealth threatened. Fifteen years after a series of failed bills and the deterioration of his personal health, Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, in a magnificent performance) feels he has reached the end of his tether until the love of a woman (Romola Garai) with a passion equal only to his own inspires him to continue and, eventually, win. A host of exceptional performances, particularly from Benedict Cumberbatch as our hero’s faithful friend (and Britain’s then Prime Minister) William Pitt and Rufus Sewell as impassioned abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, augment an already towering work of art that speaks to our intelligence and our humanity, and somehow manages to seem current and relevant despite being a story two centuries old. This is one that literally saturates you with its beauty, physically and spiritually, and provides an experience as religious as the hymn after which it is named.