Directed by Michael Apted. Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Youssou N’Dour, Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones. (2007, PG, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Feb. 23, 2007
Decked out in the powdered wigs and knee-high stockings that were all the rage in 18th-century England, the right honorable gentlemen of the House of Commons debate – with all the detachment and ironic eloquence directors love to grant the British – the relative virtues and vices of the African-slave trade. In the midst of all these harrumphing old men, and trying with all the hortatory earnestness of youth to rouse their snoozing indignation, stands abolitionist William Wilberforce (Gruffudd), who must be the most handsome member of Parliament in the history of Great Britain. With his leading-man looks, unshakable conviction, and dulcet voice, young Wilberforce has charms to soothe his rivals, but he’s sorely lacking the political guile necessary to sway their opinions. For 20 years, our hero – a slow learner if ever there were one – is repeatedly taught the lesson that unguarded enthusiasm on the side of right may grant you a spot in heaven, but it counts for little in politics. Wilberforce tells his story in flashback to the seductive Barbara Spooner (Garai) during the course of a single evening at his country estate, a narrative conceit that succeeds in distracting us from the occasionally ponderous story of an unfailingly decent man, so we can revel in the erotic clumsiness of a bumbling one. “Tell me about your last speech before Parliament,” Barbara coos by candlelight, crossing her legs and gazing longingly at her quarry. In reply to which … Wilberforce tells her about his last speech before Parliament. Wake up, William! When she said she wanted to hear all about your 20-year struggle to end slavery, what she meant was that she didn’t want at all to hear about your 20-year struggle to end slavery; she wanted to watch as you turned all that passion for social reform toward slightly more impure sport, preferably with her as your co-conspirator. After all, God didn’t bless her with those heavy eyelids and pouting lips so they would fust in her, unused. Unfortunately for Barbara and for us, what makes William Wilberforce a great man is also what makes him a bore: Whether in the parlor or in the halls of Parliament, he’s possessed of such intractable single-mindedness and confidence in the rightness of his ideals that we can’t help but wish he would lay aside saving the world for a while, come down from his cloudy perch, and dabble in sin like the rest of us, slavery or no. Which just goes to show how selfish we moviegoers can be.