I am frankly stymied by Amazing Grace. There seems to be no doubt that it's a willfully political film, but I can't decide what position it takes; outwardly it has only enough political bravery to oppose the British slave trade, abolished in 1807, and isn't that something we can all get behind?

Snark aside, I believe that very well might be the theme of the movie, or at least its value as a culture-war object: "Centrism Is Good." How else to explain how the film's producers include both Patricia Heaton (actress and abortion-opposer) and Terrence Malick (who has to be a total hippie, right? I mean, come on), how the plot of the film involves a religious conservative who fights for social justice, and what Walden Media, a company with stated mission of putting the "Christ" back in "moviegoing," has to do with any of it? It's a big ol' bridges-mender, that's what.

William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is an idealistic young member of Parliament who defies convention and the Crown, ultimately labelled seditious during wartime, which means he is like today's liberals. He is also fundamentalist and nearly pursues a career in religions rather than politics, which means he is like today's conservatives. Pointing out that polarized left-right conflict is a very modern invention is hardly common these days, and Amazing Grace is so much a curiosity. It's so...moderate. It freaks me out a little.

That's all the back-burner stuff, the part that even most film viewers wouldn't notice, unless like me they have such a morbid interest in the Culture Wars (such an interest is only ever morbid, unless you are Roy Edroso and have the inspiration to write a bit of unbridled poetry). The other extremely curious thing about Amazing Grace is that it takes one of the modern cinema's most obnoxious genres and turns it into a period piece. This is White Guilt by way of Jane Austen. That is magnificently weird, you have to admit.

Like so many Blood Diamonds before it, this is the story about how dreadful it is that terrible things happen to Africans, and isn't it wonderful that brave white people are on hand to make everything better. Or to paraphrase something for which I can no longer find the source, it's a film about how the worst part of slavery is that it made white people feel bad.

I try not to get too angry about such plots, because they're really just silly, and at least Amazing Grace is historically based, although the degree to which it's historically accurate is contested and far beyond my scope. And I do like a good Napoleonic period film. Amazing Grace isn't a good Napoleonic period film.

Michael Apted is not such a great director (although he is justly renowned for the Up documentaries, he's responsible for, among other failures, the all-time worst James Bond film), and in this film he showcases a complete inability to manage timing. He's not helped by a screenplay by Stephen Knight (whose last film, Dirty Pretty Things, was infinitely better than this) that flashes back from 1797 to 1782, tracks forward in jumps and then skips to 1807; but that doesn't excuse a general ambling pace that only picks up for the film's really great moments, the debates in Parliament, where actors like Gruffudd, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Michael Gambon get to show off with lots of Enlightenment-style wit. Boring isn't the right word at all. Directionless is. It's a movie that kind of toddles around until it stops.

I suppose this is necessary to telling the story of a political process that ground along for over two decades before it was resolved. But every time the drama threatens to pick up, something comes along to stop it: here's the romantic subplot, or here's a useless scene in which Wilberforce and Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch, whose acting is almost as awesome as his name) run around barefoot. The drama dies underfoot, and in a film like this, drama is extremely important, otherwise it just becomes an illustrated history lesson full of wooden blocks where the characters should be. Good thing for the Parliament scenes, that's all I'm saying.

A last curiosity: the titular song was written by Wilberforce's childhood preacher as a penance for selling slaves. That's fantastic, but it's not clear why that therefore makes it a good title, or why Wilberforce regards it as a vitally important song when it's only played in the film twice. I expect it probably has something to do with the general rah-rah attitude the film takes towards the Christian god, but how exactly is not totally clear to me.

Weird, weird little move. And kind of an awful review to lead into the weekend. I'm sorry.