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MOVIE REVIEW

'Amazing Grace' traces unsung hero's fight against slavery

Ioan Gruffudd plays an 18th-century English abolitionist. Ioan Gruffudd plays an 18th-century English abolitionist. (SAMUEL GOLDWYN FILMS)

"Amazing Grace" is very much the stolid "great man" bio pic, but you've probably never heard of this particular great man before, and his story's worth the telling. The movie, deeply felt and dutifully inspiring, is also an interesting reminder that England outlawed slavery a half-century before the United States got around to it, and didn't need a civil war to do so. All it took was one extremely stubborn man of conscience.

As played by Ioan Gruffudd, William Wilberforce is the sort of grave, God-fearing young man who annoys everyone else by being both moral and right. We see his concern for whipped carriage horses first, but it's whipped humans who become his life's work. By the late 17th century, there were 11 million Africans in the West Indies , and Great Britain was the superpower of slave traders. The details of the Middle Passage are hideous but business is so good that no one wants to hear them.

Wilberforce forces the issue with canny PR stunts like diverting lords and ladies out for a pleasure cruise into a recovered slave ship. "That smell is the smell of death; breathe it in!" he bellows. He also inveighs against slavery in the House of Commons to peeved, bored peers who have too much invested in the practice. "Doesn't he know the dangers of talking sense in this place? " mutters someone.

It's a doughty movie, stuck halfway between Masterpiece Theatre and Classics Illustrated, but, to his credit, gifted journeyman director Michael Apted understands he's playing the long game. It took decades for the armada of public opinion to shift course, and "Amazing Grace" charts the ups and downs of England and its hero. (He suffered grievously from colitis, we learn.) Political strategy is crucial to all the abolitionists except Wilberforce, who believes right will conquer simply because it's right. Gruffudd makes this naivete endearing rather than obstinate.

Watching the film, you get a sense of Europe turning under the weight of history. At the start, England is about to lose the Revolutionary War; by the end, beheadings in Paris have those across the channel fearfully fingering their collars. One of the scruffier abolitionists (Rufus Sewell) whispers, "What you say about the slave is true of the miner and the farmer," but Wilberforce will have none of such proto-Marxism and sends the man packing. The more conservative members of Parliament are horrified by an anti slavery petition bearing 400,000 names. "That roll of paper reeks of rebellion," squawks one MP. "The people?!" "Amazing Grace" is explicit about charting a middle passage of its own.

Intriguing historical characters keep popping up in the film, played by sharp hams. Toby Jones (the other Capote) makes an epicene Duke of Clarence, the King's son (King George III, you may recall, is off being insane) while Benedict Cumberbatch is a canny, red-haired William Pitt, youthful prime minister and Wilberforce's boyhood friend. Michael Gambon gambols through as Lord Charles Fox, Ciaran Hinds glowers as the villainous Lord Tarleton, and Albert Finney, looking like a hedgehog in a cassock, is John Newton, the slave-trader-turned monk who wrote the title hymn, the abolitionists' fight song. Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour makes an impressive acting debut as Oloudaqh Equiano, the freed slave turned writer who served as Exhibit A against slavery.

There's a love interest, too: Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), a lifelong activist who forms a happy meeting of mind and soul with this man who prefers meeting with God in a field instead of a church. "Amazing Grace" is a period epic and a saint's progress, but mostly it's a debate on the old subject of Christian faith versus Christian works. Not much of a contest, really. The movie soberly testifies to a man who felt that belief without acts is the worst sort of hypocrisy and who kept pushing until the rest of his country gave in.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies.

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