Directed by Michael Apted. US/UK. 2007.
Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann
Amazing Grace sets out to be a straightforward telling of the story of William Wilberforce’s long parliamentary campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire, and within the confines of a two-hour film it is largely successful. Handicapped by illness and by doubts about his abilities, Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is encouraged to continue the battle by his wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), his parliamentary colleague Henry Thornton (Nicholas Farrell), the revolutionary Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), the writer of the titular hymn John Newton (Albert Finney), the converted master of a slave-ship, and a group of other evangelical reformers known as the Clapham Sect. Discreet support is also given by the party leaders William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon). Ranged against him are the massed ranks of vested interests, such as Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hands) and Toby Jones (Duke of Clarence), presented as bewigged pantomime villains. There is a single black character, the ex-slave Olaudah Equano (Youssou N‘Dour).
This roll-call of acting talent, without the current fashion of having an American actor in a leading British role, ensures that the performances are near-faultless. Strictly speaking it is not a “British” film as it is US-financed, the great director Terrence Malick being listed in the production team. The action rolls along nicely, the scenes in the House of Commons being particularly enjoyable, despite what seemed, to this reviewer, to be the anomaly of having members of the House of Lords being present there.
The film has been criticised by some as implying that the abolition of the slave trade (and eventually of slavery) was largely due to the efforts of a single white man, with slaves themselves never to be seen. This is to miss the point. Of course there were slave uprisings which contributed to the abolitionist movement, and a film about the whole history of that movement would have to give prominence to those uprisings. But Amazing Grace was always intended to be a conventional “biopic”, highlighting the life and work of a particular individual.
This raises the whole question of the merits of the “biopic”, which the critic quoted earlier seems to look down upon. There are perhaps half-a-dozen of what can, to a greater or lesser extent, be described as biopics among the canon of greatest films: the silent classics Napoleon and The Passion of Joan of Arc, the Russian classics Andrei Rublev and Ivan the Terrible, Lawrence of Arabia, and Raging Bull. A film about William Wilberforce does not seem amenable to the approach of any of these films: the events of Andrei Rublev are largely fictional, the treatments of Napoleon, Joan, and Ivan are highly expressionistic, Lawrence of Arabia would be a far lesser film without the desert landscapes, while Scorsese has written that his treatment of the boxer Jake la Motta was a means of finding his (Scorsese‘s) way out of a personal crisis in his own life. To make a film about Wilberforce in any of these ways would be absurd.
The one criticism which can be made of Amazing Grace is that, like various other biopics such as Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, it presents its hero as a man who can do no wrong. The world is divided between “goodies” and “baddies”, and there are no shades of grey. With that proviso, I would commend Amazing Grace as an enjoyable, educational, and, dare I suggest, “earnestly worthy” film.
The life and political career of an unlikely hero, William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament in the 18th century who led a courageous twenty-year campaign to abolish England’s participation in the African slave trade, is dramatized in Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace. The title is derived from the popular hymn whose words were written by John Newton, a former captain of slave ships whose soul was redeemed by his faith. Wilberforce is played by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd who brings passion to the role of the sickly leader who was on medication to relieve the symptoms of Colitis most of his life, yet maintained a single-minded dedication to a cause despite fierce opposition.
We see his wit and humor in the Parliamentary debates on slavery, his struggles with his faith, his friendship with the young Prime Minister William Pitt, and his romance and marriage to activist Barbara Spooner who shares his dedication to abolition. The film begins in 1797 as Wilberforce, then only 34, but worn out as a result of his recurring defeats in Parliament, has gone to rest at the home of friends Henry (Nicholas Farrell) and Marianne Thornton (Sylvestra Le Touzel). There he meets the beautiful Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) and tells her the story of his life and work to abolish the slave trade. The film then moves back in time to when Wilberforce was first elected to the House of Commons in 1780 at the age of 21.
He is shown meditating on the grass of his wealthy estate in conversation with his friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), who eventually became the youngest Prime Minister in Britain’s history at the age of 24. At the urging of Pitt, Wilberforce puts together a Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade that began gathering facts to present to Parliament and introduces his first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, one of many bills he was to present over the next twenty years. The members of the committee include Thomas Clarkson, an evangelical Christian (called “the Jacobin by opponents), Oloudagh Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), a freed slave and author of a book about his experiences, and Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon), a pro-slavery advocate who crosses over and joins the abolition campaign.
Though there is no actual depiction of the brutality of the African slave trade, there is ample evidence presented in debate. Going back to the Fifteenth century, the trade was run for the benefit of merchants who transported European goods to Africa, brought African men, women, and children as slaves to the West Indies who were then sold and exchanged for West Indian exports. Chained together in a cramped room the size of a closet, many died on the voyage which lasted up to three months, and were thrown overboard. Once the weakest of the slaves were abandoned on the wharf to die, the hardiest slaves were sent to the cane fields to perform exhausting forced labor where many more died. Clarkson collects 300,000 signatures on a petition favoring abolition in which the signatories vow to refuse to use plantation sugar in their tea.
Another strong supporter is John Newton portrayed by the great Albert Finney who persuades the shaky Wilberforce to keep up the fight and not to give it up for a life in the Church. The opposition to abolition, however, remains strong, led by Lord Tarlton (Ciaran Hinds), and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones) who vow to protect the economic benefits of slavery, even arguing that slaves live more comfortably on the plantations than some Englishmen. Although Amazing Grace is a conventional biography that does not venture into any new cinematic territory, it is a very entertaining and inspiring film that captures the period with authenticity and has a stellar cast that performs admirably throughout.
Wilberforce does seem slightly larger than life, yet he was a worthy hero who was admired by Jefferson, Lincoln, and Thoreau. In spite of his physical limitations and the overweening power of the ruling elite, he became a role model for those afraid to stand for an unpopular cause. Despite the safety of dramatizing events from two centuries ago, Amazing Grace shows us that political leaders can also be individuals of moral conviction who are capable of leaving the world in a better place than they found it.
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