So we whiled away an overcast Friday afternoon by going to the movies. There were three reasons for this: I feel I am duty bound to boost the first-weekend attendance of any intelligent and interesting-looking bit of historical film going, Blondie will watch Ioan Gruffudd in anything; double points and drooling slightly especially if he is costumed in tight trousers, tall boots and a shirt romantically opened halfway down the front… and where was I? Oh, third reason. No car crashes, explosions and machine gun fire.

Be warned though: when it comes out on DVD, it will make an excellent drinking game. Every time you see a British actor you recognize from Masterpiece Theater, knock back a shot for every presentation he or she was in. I guarantee everyone at the party will be paralytic by the end of the first half-hour, forty-five minutes max. It does have the distinct vibe of those lush and lovingly produced British television epics of a certain sort: all it lacks is the genteel host, sitting in a leather armchair, turning the pages of a book and setting the scene in orotund tones. The settings and costumes, and period details were as immaculate as they always are in these efforts. Rooms didn’t look like sets; they looked like rooms; many of them crowded and cluttered, and sometimes rather dim.

The first few minutes seemed a little awkward, rather jarring in setting up the characters and premise, and I mentally rewrote some of the dialogue. Bad habit of mine, having been intensely steeped in period literature, but either I adjusted or the writing got better. I think the latter, for a lot of the later dialogue was on-point.

The story was of that of William Wilberforce; a name not terribly familiar to Americans, and his long and discouraging struggle to outlaw slavery in the British Isles and in the British Empire as it was at the end of the 18th Century. The accounts of the abolitionist movement taught in our schools is pretty much focused on the American abolitionists at a later date, many of them inspired and even encouraged by Wilberforce himself, so this story is not a terribly over-familiar one to most Americans. William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown, to give a couple of examples- them we have heard of.

The structure of the story might be a little hard to follow, initially: it hops back and forth, telling the story of Wilberforce, as a fairly well-born and well-connected young Member of Parliament, a forceful orator and able politician, and a good friend of William Pitt the Younger. He is young and dashing, beloved by his friends… even his household staff is fond of him, and accustomed to his eccentricities, among which is a fondness for all kinds of animals not normally considered as pets. He is also extremely and unashamedly devout, and in an effort by his good friend Pitt to find him a cause by which he might serve both God and Mammon (in the form of Pitt’s government) … he becomes devoted to the cause of abolishing chattel slavery, to the endangerment of his health and sanity.

Among Wilberforces’ first political allies in this effort who are not related to him by blood are the amazingly twisty Lord Charles Fox (Charles Gambon), political genius extraordinaire, and Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), a scholar with a bent for research and a passion for abolition. They are both given memorably amusing lines of dialogue: really, if I hadn’t seen “Cold Comfort Farm, I wouldn’t have thought Rufus Sewell had it in him to be a comic, and sometimes rather touching foil. (He usually gets the rather grim and earnest roles.)

Other noted moments: Ciaren Hinds, as one of the principal opponents to abolishing the slave trade, Lord Tarleton. Recently come from battling those rebellious Americans, he is the representative for Liverpool, and shows off his damaged sword-hand, as a war wound. Most Americans would have dearly loved a very much larger piece out of Banastre Tarleton than that, so he makes a very suitable villain.

And there it is: the movie makes clear what a long and dedicated effort it took to bring this about. For it meant a lot of work; writing, and preaching and persuading, not just of the high and the mighty, but of the ordinary people. Of this are solid, and very real grass-roots movements made, or at least, those of them that last, one person at a time being convinced against their economic self-interests. It does not happen overnight: it takes a while, and if anyone should be seeing this as some sort of politically correct fable, expecting the righteous cause to effortlessly sweep all before it… well, this should give pause. People grow old, grow weary and blind, loose their health and their illusions, and die before the cause is won. But when victory comes, it is sweet and just… and one which all can take comfort in, having been brought around by reason and persuasion. And the occasional political sly maneuver.

Money and time well-spent, overall. Not quite as literary as “Shakespeare in Love”, but not as drearily PC as “Amistad”. (Blondie says that the male leads are majorly studly and straight, which knocks out a certain theory about actors who can swish about in cloaks and swords and all that.)

Sgt Mom is a retired Air Force NCO and freelance writer, who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief

Be Sociable, Share!