Movie Review: Amazing Grace
Release Date: February 23, 2007
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films/Roadside Attractions
· Michael Apted
· Ioan Gruffudd
· Romola Garai
· Ciarán Hinds
· Rufus Sewell
· Youssou N'Dour
· Michael Gambon
· Albert Finney
· Official Site
· IMDb: Amazing Grace
by Paul Schultz
Published: March 1, 2007
Released on the 200th anniversary of the date the British parliament voted to
ban the slave trade, "Amazing Grace" relates the amazing true story of William Wilberforce and his decades-long battle to win this moral victory. The acclaimed abolitionist is certainly not a household name, but after seeing this film, you'll wonder why. The opening narration spells out the injustice: "Great Britain was the mightiest superpower, built on the backs of slaves."
Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, "Fantastic Four") is a middle-aged man in poor health at the film's start, a direct result of years of passionate struggles in the British House of Commons as a Member of Parliament (M.P.) to introduce legislation abolishing the country's lucrative
slave trade. He's hitting the laudanum pretty hard to stave off the pain, and his spirit for social change is flagging. He meets outspoken beauty Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, "Vanity Fair"), who methodically emboldens him to continue his political fight during a quaint courtship.
Inspired in his youth by John Newton (Albert Finney, "Big Fish") -- the author of the now-famous hymn "Amazing Grace" -- Wilberforce seeks advice from his mentor as he decides how to combat this evil. Newton had captained a slave ship many years before converting to Christianity, repenting of his ways, and going on to become a preacher. The memory of his former livelihood still haunts him, so much so that he cannot offer Wilberforce the assistance he desires out in public, preferring to live out his days in seclusion.
Friend and fellow M.P. William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) encourages Wilberforce to take up the cause, and moves him along by organizing a memorable dinner filled with abolitionist sympathizers, including former slave Oloudaqh Equiano (Youssou N'Dour). Equiano has bought his freedom and escaped the Colonies back to London, where his has written a popular book of his account as a slave and is becoming a leading figure in the fight to end the slavery of his fellow countrymen. Equiano's mid-meal demonstration of how slaves are shackled convinces Wilberforce once and for all to dive in to the movement will all his heart.
Pitt becomes one of the youngest Prime Ministers in Britain's history,
but concerns with a looming war with France dampens his enthusiasm for scuttling the economy that the slave trade props up. This strains his friendship with Wilberforce, though he subtly coaxes him to continue to pursue his anti-slavery efforts. Lord Banastre Tarleon (Ciarán Hinds,
"The Nativity Story") and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones) lead the opposition as their constituency resides in port cities who benefit the most from shipping slaves overseas.
Wilberforce's proposed legislation is continually smacked down in Parliament, until influential M.P. Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon,
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") joins his side and begins to turn hearts and minds one at a time. When Wilberforce presents a petition with over three hundred thousand signatures objecting to the continuation of the slave trade, the issue can no longer be ignored. Things don't move fast enough for fellow abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell,
"The Illusionist"), who pushes for revolution in direct defiance of the king.
Wilberforce will have none of it, and continues his deliberate pursuit. He joins Equiano on a docked slave ship while the latter explains how slaves are treated during their three week journey. Later, Wilberforce uses the same ship, and its pungent smell to acquaint a captive ship's party filled with eminent M.P.'s and their wives with the reality of how their lives of privilege are funded.
When Wilberforce reaches a point of discouragement, his now-wife Barbara spurs him on, as does another visit with the reclusive Newton. The aged Newton has lost his eyesight, but is finally ready to compose his memoirs of his role in the hated slave trade. It's a freeing action -- with an ironic twist -- that he shares with his protégé: "I was blind, but now I see. I wrote that, didn't I?"
While America ultimately came to a bloody resolution to the
problem, Britain's bloodless abolition was fought politically. For someone
like myself, who passionately loathes politics, the most amazing feat of
"Amazing Grace" is that it makes these machinations intriguing. Things
could have quickly bogged down in endless dialogue in the House of Commons, yet director Michael Apted ("The World Is Not Enough") manages to move the story along and keep it from becoming stale. The lavish set pieces and costumes take you into the period utterly.
The biggest thing I came away with was the power of perseverance. There were many points where I could have seen myself giving up, and the film successfully shows how constancy can indeed change the world. My only mild reservation would be that Wilberforce's Christianity is downplayed
in favor of his focus on political pursuits. It didn't effectively show, in my mind, how being a Christian contributes in times of trial. Still, Wilberforce's story is a tremendous tale that transcends historical drama and strikes at the heart of what it means that all men are created equal.
In conjunction with this film, a companion biography, "Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery" has been released, along with the Original Score by David Arnold ("Casino
Royale"), and Amazing Grace: Music Inspired by the Motion Picture featuring familiar hymns from Contemporary Christian artists like Chris Tomlin, Bart Millard and Jeremy Camp.
Previews: "Spider-Man 3", "The Last Mimzy", "The Lives of Others" (recent winner at the Academy Awards
for Best Foreign Language Film)