: In this inspirational costume drama, Michael Apted (49 Up
) recounts a important period in British history. Unsurprisingly, however, his eye-opening biography of 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is likely to come as a revelation to many Britons. After all, despite the presence of his wife, Barbara (Romola Garai), this isn't a particularly "sexy" story, but it is a powerful one. The title comes from John Newton's hymn "Amazing Grace" ("I once was lost but now am found"). Newton (Albert Finney) was a former slaveholder, who became a clergyman and spent his days repenting. While America had John Brown, England had Wilberforce, and Newton is one of many who helped the MP to abolish slavery in the UK. Apted and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things
) do right by their hero. Unlike Amistad, however, slaves are largely off-screen, with the exception of author Equiano (Senegalese vocalist Youssou N'Dour). Amazing Grace
reserves its focus for the politicians who risked their reps for the greater good, like Wilberforce and Prime Minister Pitt (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch), and those more concerned with the income slavery provided their constituents, like Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones). --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Miss Potter walks that fine line between charming and cloying with pleasing sure-footedness. Apple-cheeked Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones' Diary) once again slips into a British accent to play writer/illustrator Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit. Potter, born into wealth, fought the disapproval of her high society mother to do something as crass as publish a book... and to fall in love with her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor, previously teamed with Zellweger in Down With Love). Unfortunately, their love runs into something worse than upper-class stuffiness. Miss Potter skips through Potter's life a bit too briskly at times, but Zellweger's thankfully restrained performance, McGregor's infinite charm, and some beautiful shots of the English landscape keep the movie grounded and engaging. Also featuring a crackling supporting performance by Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) as Warne's sister Millie. --Bret Fetzer
The Painted Veil: The third film version of Somerset Maughams 1925 novel--directed by John Curran--is ripe with stunning Chinese locales and a smart turn from Naomi Watts as Kitty Fane, the aging English socialite who must put herself in strange and turbulent surroundings before she finds her true self. A complex and beautiful international production, this adaptation benefits greatly from the lack restrictions that inhibited its previous incarnations in 1925 (with Greta Garbo) and in 1957 (as The Seventh Skin). After pressure from her wealthy parents to settle down, Kitty (Naomi Watts) marries mild-mannered bacteriologist Walter (Edward Norton), despite her lack of love for him. Shortly after their vows, he takes her to Shanghai, where she immediately has an affair with Charles Townsend (Liev Shrieber), an English Vice Consul. Walter becomes aware of Kittys indiscretion and promptly whisks her away to the mountain village of Mei-tan-fu, where they befriend another English expat, the secretly decadent Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones, in an extremely likeable performance). Walter begins working to hold an encroaching cholera epidemic at bay---leaving Kitty to ponder her role in the situation as death looms over the village like a spectre. Watts is the heart of the film, all bee-stung lips and sweat on porcelain skin. Romantic, escapist entertainment in the best sense, The Painted Veil is yet more proof that there is an endless pool of silver screen potential in the classics of literature.