Ioan Gruffudd plays a different kind of Mr Fantastic in Amazing Grace, the story of 18th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce. Before anyone yawns into a coma, let's make clear that this is one message movie that entertains as much as it educates. Charting the long battle to end Britain's slave trade with spirit and wit, it's also cast to the nines, from young pups (Starter For Ten's Benedict Cumberbatch) to old pros (Albert Finney as reformed slaver John Newton, author of the eponymous hymn).
Happily, Gruffudd isn't upstaged by the formidable support, which also includes Michael Gambon and Rufus Sewell as wily allies opposite Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones as hateful opponents. Whether standing up to sing or laid low with illness, our hero puts his back into it. Even if Michael Apted's film sometimes paints Wilberforce as too saintly to be true (he's first seen saving a flogged horse), Gruffudd's conviction never cloys. He also shows a light touch in his brotherly bond with college pal turned Prime Minister William Pitt (Cumberbatch).
"ACCESSIBILITY IS ONE OF ITS VIRTUES"
At regular turns the film seeks to deflate its preachy potential ("Is that some kind of heavy-handed metaphorical advice?" quips Pitt). On the other hand, there is something made-for-schools about Amazing Grace, whether it's the sexless romance between Wilberforce and his wife (Romola Garai) or the avoidance of anything too nasty involving slavery. Still, accessibility is one of the movie's virtues: without dumbing down, it makes the workings of Parliament seem as gripping as a good suspense thriller.
Amazing Grace is released in UK cinemas on Friday 23rd March 2007.