First it was "Me & Isaac Newton", and now Michael Apted is back for "Me & John Newton", or from what I can gather from this poster that fills Ioan Grufford up with so many pale-colored images that it looks like he's covered in fog, "William Wilberforce in the Mist". That would probably be funnier if it wasn't for the fact that no one remembers "Gorillas in the Mist", but really, what I'm getting at is that, for the first time in a while, Apted is back to films about the rising of a person behind a popular song, because, you know, a two-hour-long British film about how some old British poet came up with the idea to write "Amazing Grace" sounds terribly interesting. No, people, there's more to this story than just that, and if there wasn't, the American side of this American-British collaborative effort would probably figure something out, seeing as how they Hollywooded this film's history up enough, and not just with the casting. Yeah, William Wilberforce wished he was as handsome as Ioan Grufford, but hey, I'm still glad Gruffudd here, not just because he turns in a good performance, but because it's only fitting that you have a Welshman head a cast this British. Man, this film's cast is so British that they were able to dig up Rufus Sewell to join Nicholas Farrell, Toby Jones, Michael "The, Well, Second and Tragically Now-Only Dumbledore" Gambon, Albert Finney and, of course, the man with one of the most British names in the world, Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch. That's a lot of thick accents and a lot of thick talent, and Apted does a fair bit of this potential justice by making this film a decent one. Still, while this film is decidedly more than just a meditation about the inception of some Christian hymn that most people aren't interested in enough to have the desire to keep up with it's history, you're interest in this film is bound to be challenged by some aspects, including those of a pacing nature.
I'm not going to lie, I went into this film fearing slowness, as it boasts such a potential for dryness, perhaps even dullness, yet the final product comes out able to comfortably avoid dull spells, as well as plenty of bland spells, but for only so long, before pacing dips and leaves the film to tumble into disengaging relative blandness, prolonged by occasions of dragging in story structure. This two-hour dialogue drama is generally tight, but it outstays its welcome on occasions, or at least seems to, due to the limp spots in atmosphere that shake your engagement value and dilute the final product's value as a rewarding drama, further shaken by the film's being somewhat derivative. Films of this type have been done to death throughout the years, making it near-impossible to avoid glaring tropes, plenty of which aren't explored deeply enough to throw you off, yet it's hard to ignore conventionalism's still doing some serious damage to resonance by establishing firm predictability. Of course, this film is so minimalist that predictability is no relatively big deal, so what might be the most problematic thing about this film's conventionalism is its typically succumbing to storytelling formulas that have a history of subtlety issues, because no matter how genuine this film is on the whole, when subtlety lapses, some kick is lost in the midst of rather cheesy storytelling moves, particularly those of a sentimental nature. The film means well, and such endearing heart settles the sting of many sentimental moments, sometimes to where genuine resonance is drawn through all of the unsubtle clutter, but on the whole, it is, in fact, ambition that stands behind most of this film's errors in sentimentality, establishing worthy, but overblown aspirations that end up emphasizing shortcomings every bit as much as they breathe life into a reasonable degree of charm, or at least emphasize just how minimalist this film's story concept is. Certainly, this tale of abolition is worthy, but there's just not a whole lot of meat to this premise, which holds quite a bit of dramatic possibility, but is thin enough to face a very real risk of falling out of the bonafide goodness that is, of course, ultimately lost by this sometimes slow, often sentimental, consistently conventional and all around overambitious. Still, no matter how much this film falls behind on fulfilling its worth vision, what it does right brings it close to achieving the status of all-out rewarding, while securing it as quite decent, with a fair bit of engagement value that is outdone only by the film's production value.
Many a relatively minimalist period piece of this type does a fine job of restoring the distinct era in which it is set, but a lot of them simply pinch pennies and neglect to do all that much with the flaunting of their setting, with this film being an exception that puts a barely recovered $29 million budget to good use, as production designer Charles Wood and costume designer Jenny Beavan interpret the look of England between the final days of the 18th century and early days of the 19th century in a fashion that is not only adequately convincing, but intricate in a distinct and dynamic fashion that proves to be dashingly attractive and distinguished, with a lavish attention to detail that is complimented by Remi Adefarasin's cinematography, an artistic touch that isn't exactly outstanding, but still attractive, much like a certain other, more audible artistic aspect. First off, if y'all skimmed through this film's awful song soundtrack on the market and feared its presence in the final product, you may rest easy, as the filmmakers realized that such contemporaneous musical tones couldn't possibly gel with the body of this study on a time long, long lost, thus leaving most of the final product's musical value to go driven by David Arnold's score, which, even then, is kind of underused, as well as flawed by its own right, being tainted with a bit of conventionalism that dilutes your appreciation of Arnold's efforts, but just barely, as Arnold generally does a fine job of compensating by gracing his score with a rich and dynamic soul that makes it both entertaining on its own and complimentary to the reinforcement of the film's heartfelt tone. Arnold's inspired touches put together a score that makes for a worthy musical companion for this film's story, as surely as attractive production value and cinematography back a worthy visual companion for this story, complimenting the tastefulness of the telling of a worthy tale, and when you cut through all of the pretty visuals and score pieces, into the heart of the story itself, you can find subject matter that deserves nothing less than inspired compliments like the ones provided by this project's visual, musical and storytelling team. Sure, the meat and, by extension, excitement to this very conversational drama is limited, and that gives this story concept a sensitivity that could easily and, in fact, does leave a flawed film to collapse into a bit of underwhelmingness, but there's no denying the importance of this subject matter, which still holds quite a bit of dramatic material, as reflected by what is done right in this worthy story concept's execution, which features a script by Steven Knight that boasts witty dialogue and humor, as well as rich expository depth, as well as directorial performance by Michael Apted that is overambitious and flawed, but with enough liveliness to sustain a generally fair degree of entertainment value, as well as enough heart to sustain somewhat compelling charm, broken up by moments of genuine dramatic effectiveness. The film isn't as effective as it could have been, and may not be as effective as it should be, but it has its moments of resonance to break up a consistent degree of engagement value that is endearingly heartfelt enough for the film to border on generally rewarding, and get you by as reasonably well-entertained. Needless to say, this film's charm and heart wouldn't be what it is without the performers who drive this character piece, with distinguished and memorable charismas, broken up by occasions of dramatic potency, that go into making a cast full of engaging talents who do about as much as anyone or anything in keeping this film alive. True, more acting material could have made this film more as a character piece, just like how more assurance in storytelling could have made the final product genuinely rewarding on the whole, but when it's all said and done, no matter how much this film fails to achieve its full potential, it carries on as quite enjoyable, with potential that is just fulfilled enough to produce a decent dramatic effort.
In closing, slow, if not a big structurally dragged out spells do damage to momentum, while conventionalism and sentimentality shake engagement value and, alongside overambition, emphasize natural shortcomings in this story that are not compensated for enough to keep underwhelmingness at bay, but still challenged enough for a borderline rewarding effort to be made, comprised of the excellent production value, fine score work, decent writing and direction, and strong acting that compliment the value of a generally worthy story enough to make Michael Apted's "Amazing Grace" a drama that may fall short, but generally does a decent job of giving you engaging insight into the fight against slavery in England.
2.75/5 - Decent