Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Romola Garai, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, Youssou N’Dour, Toby Jones, Stephen Campbell Moore
Samuel Goldwyn Films | 111 minutes
In late 18th Century England, a up-and-coming young member of Parliament named William Wilberforce had what he later described as a “conversion”. While sitting in his garden one day, he realised that God’s earth was beautiful and that His grace was worth attaining. For a time he agonised over whether he should pursue a career in politics or do God’s work. When Wilberforce finally realised that he could do both at the same time, he struggled tirelessly for the next 20-odd years to achieve the abolition of the slave trade in the British Isles.
This noble struggle is the subject of Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, a stirring film which will have all but the most cynical viewer cheering at the end. Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight largely forego the gimmicks and inventions which often plague similar historical biopics in favour of honest story-telling. They let the true story, a compelling one, and the intriguing real-life figures provide the entertainment. The result is a safe and derivative, but a truly delightful and inspirational movie.
As Wilberforce, Ioan Gruffud, in an abrupt departure from his turn as Mr Fantastic, offers a subdued performance, bringing suitable integrity to the part. With reasonable efficiency Gruffud conveys, mostly with just his face, the anguish a man as empathetic and caring as Wilberforce suffers when confronted with senseless cruelty. Note an early scene when Wilberforce feels obligated to challenge a man brutally beating his horse. Later he becomes literally nauseous at the gaming table when unexpectedly brought face-to-face with the evils of slavery.
Just as Wilberforce relied on a great deal of help from others in his fight against slavery, a fine supporting cast surrounds Gruffud. Alongside Wilberforce every step of the way was his childhood friend, William Pitt, believably portrayed here by Benedict Cumberbatch. Known as William Pitt the Younger (his father was in politics too), his ambition propelled him to accepting the office of Prime Minister at a very young age. Always sympathetic to his good friend’s cause, Pitt never blatantly called himself an abolitionist for fear of negative political repercussions. He did his part nevertheless, and he and Wilberforce are fittingly buried next to one another in Westminster Abbey.
Several other remarkable real-life characters populate the film in support of Wilberforce’s righteous cause. The adamant Thomas Clarkson is played with conviction by Rufus Sewell. Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) was a powerful senior member of Parliament whose support, after his conscience drove to him join the cause, proved indispensable. Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour plays Olaudah Equiano, a decent and intelligent ex-slave, whose autobiography, a best-seller at the time, greatly fuelled the abolitionist movement.
Submitting the most skilled performance of the picture is the always impressive Albert Finney as John Newton. Newton, a man with a story equally as fascinating as Wilberforce’s, had been the captain of a slave ship. Overwhelmed by guilt, he renounced his life as a slaver and lived out his waning years in penance as a monk, serving as Wilberforce’s theological mentor. While a monk, Newton wrote several hymns including the famous one from which the film gets it name.
The movie has nothing to do with the composition of this beloved hymn, as some of the trailers have suggested, but the song’s lyrics are central to the theme. Anyone (or any society) who looks for it can find grace. Newton really was a wretch until he atoned, and Finney brings to the character a potent dose of haunted, desperate remorse. At one point, he struggles to remember the horrific details of what transpired on the slave ships. He says, “I’m starting to forget everything. Sometimes I only remember two things — that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour and I guess that’s all I really need to remember.” Anyone who has ever considered the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” too overstated need only contemplate the background of its author.
The film opens in the middle of Wilberforce’s crusade against slavery and then flashes back to the time when the young politician had his conversion. This is intended to heighten the drama. The earliest scenes cover a crucial point in Wilberforce’s life. His tireless work has caused ill-health, prompting him to go to Bath where he questions continuing his efforts to abolish slavery. There he meets Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) who encourages him to press on. Eventually they marry.
What the structure actually produces however, is a somewhat clumsy narrative flow. Periodic subtitles, “fifteen years earlier”, “present day”, are necessary to keep the audience aware of the time, creating the false sensation that the opening scenes comprise the end of Wilberforce’s career. The events of his life might have generated more drama had they unfolded chronologically, with Miss Spooner (who enjoyed a long marriage and six children with Wilberforce) in her proper place. This was, perhaps, the only poor choice by the film makers.
Despite the structure, Amazing Grace satisfyingly professes that one man really can change the course of history. Albeit with great support from many like-minded individuals, William Wilberforce persisted in fighting what he saw as injustice. Looking back at that time period with 21st Century eyes, arguments for the institution of slavery seem either silly or downright obscene. Men argued that slavery should just be allowed to die out naturally and gradually. Others asserted that abolition would destroy the British economy and that the French would immediately fill in the void. Of course, it is only due to the efforts of Wilberforce and abolitionist movements across the world that these arguments seem so erroneous today. We were blind and now we see.
Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.