CAPSULE: AMAZING GRACE is a second-class film on a first-class theme, the life of the man who changed much of the world by ending the British slave trade. This could be a very strong experience. Unfortunately the film smolders for almost two hours without ever catching emotional fire. Some enormous liberties were taken with history. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Links for more information included at the end of the review.
"As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might, - let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition."
- William Wilberforce, speech befoore the House of Commons, May 12, 1789
The hour before seeing Michael Apted's AMAZING GRACE I listened to a BBC4 historical program on the life of William Wilberforce, part of their "In Our Time" series hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Shortly after, I read Michael Apted's article on the film in the winter 2007 edition of FLM: THE VOICE OF INDEPENDENT FILM. Curiously, both point up flaws in the film.
Michael Apted, it should be pointed out, is a very fine documentary filmmaker. His series of documentaries 7*N-UP may well be among the finest and most revealing documentaries ever made. His dramatic film output is not of the same caliber. AMAZING GRACE is an account of the efforts of MP William Wilberforce to end Britain's slave trade. Apted takes liberties with the history to make what should already be a dramatic story even more dramatic and to remake Wilberforce into a dashing romantic hero. And in spite of the jazzing up, somehow his film grabs the viewer's attention but rarely grips the viewer as it should. The film's most moving passages are in descriptions of the slave trade we are told about second-hand but not shown on screen. Wilberforce is played by 5'11" handsome Ioan Gruffudd. Television viewers may remember him as the young Horatio Hornblower. Actually Toby Jones, who also appears in the film, might have been closer to being a physical match to the historical 5'3" Wilberforce who also had a bent spine.
Apted really did not need a hunk in the role to make a hero of the man who fought the British government, the then-powerful sugar industry, and the King to end the moral abomination. After a struggle of many years he convinced Parliament to pass laws that ended the British slave trade (though not slavery itself). That action had profound influence throughout the British Empire as well as greatly affecting our own Civil War. Wilberforce accurately presented would be a great real-life hero whose work had a powerful influence over the world.
The film opens in 1797 when Wilberforce is in his mid-30s but has already paid a heavy price in health for his struggle against the slave trade. He retires to recover at the home of his friends Henry and Marianne Thornton (played by Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel). While there he tells his story to kindred spirit Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). From there the film jumps around a bit in time without clearly delineating what is happening when. Apted says that he believes that it is love of one sort or another that gives a film an emotional center. However, according to the BBC, Wilberforce married the somewhat frumpy Barbara Spooner late in life. His friends did not really care for her. To make this relationship a center of the film Apted turns the story into a grand romance and has Wilberforce telling her his story in flashback. It convolutes the film and misrepresents the history.
Wilberforce has a life-long and occasionally stormy friendship with William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who became Prime Minister of England at age 24, the youngest ever. Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian and had to choose between religious work and politics. In the film Abolitionists suggested he could combine the two fighting slavery. In actual fact it was probably Pitt who made the suggestion. Apted takes us back and forth between the romance and the political battles. Notably missing from the film is the climactic incident of the campaign, Wilberforce's moving and stormy four-hour speech before the House of Commons on May 12, 1789.
Albert Finney plays John Newton, who was Wilberforce's preacher when he was growing up. Newton had formerly been a slave trader, but he gave up the dirty business for religion. He is tortured by the memories of his own barbarity, but took some comfort in his religion. Newton wrote the hymn that became the anthem of the abolitionist cause and which gives the film its title. Michael Gambon is a Member of Parliament who, after opposing Wilberforce, follows his conscience to support him. Also present in the production are Ciarán Hinds, Rufus Sewell, and Bill Paterson.
I suppose that at one time this film's liberties with historic fact would not have been really bothersome. It probably is no less accurate to the life of William Wilberforce than a film like YANKEE DOODLE DANDY to the life of George M. Cohan. Somehow with the history more easily available on the Internet, one almost expects that filmmakers would feel obliged to try to stick close to truth. This is not a bad film, but it is misleading in many ways. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0454776/
Film site including links to study materials
More on Wilberforce:
The BBC Broadcast mentioned above
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper