Amazing Grace (2006)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.
Director – by Michael Apted; writer – by Steven Knight; director of photography – Remi Adefarasin; editor – Rick Shaine; music – David Arnold; producers – Edward R. Pressman, Terrence Malick, Patricia Heaton, David Hunt, and Ken Wales. Starring – Ioan Gruffudd (William Wilberforce), Romola Garai (Barbara Spooner), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt), Albert Finney (John Newton), Michael Gambon (Lord Fox), Rufus Sewell (Thomas Clarkson), Youssou N’Dour (Oloudah Equiano), Ciaran Hinds (Lord Tarleton) and Toby Jones (Duke of Clarence) Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions. 120 minutes.

With Amazing Grace, the new film about the courage and conviction of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce, director Michael Apted delivers an inspiring story about how political activism can change the world. And in doing so, he does something even more remarkable: he proves that religious characters can be an inspiration on the big screen without relying too heavily on sermons or sentimentality.

While the film has a bit too much sweetener for the sake of entertainment, and a few plot twists that smack of sensationalism (an airbrushed romance, wild courtroom hyjinx), Amazing Grace get far more right than wrong, and is a pleasant surprise in an otherwise uninspiring season at the movies.

What does Amazing Grace get right?

Well, first and foremost, its heart is in the right place.

The film celebrates the value of valiant political action without misleading us about the hardship and suffering that fall upon those who determine to do the right thing. Wilberforce (1759-1833) suffered on several fronts as he stood like David to the Goliath of British Parliament, seeking to change their minds and hearts on the issues of slavery. The film gives sufficient time and attention to the complications of court proceedings. And we’re left in no doubt that Wilberforce’s convictions took a toll on his health. He was only 21 when he was elected to the House of Commons, but his long battle against the slave trade ended only three days before he died.

The cross he bore… that is the focus of the film. (In fact, it opens with him groaning under the burden of responsibility.) But while Wilberforce may not have lived long enough to come out from under the shadow of such persecution to bask much in the joy of his victories, it is clear that he is strove with one eye fixed upon heaven. His treasure lay there, his heart set upon pleasing God.

How often do we see Christian faith portrayed without cynicism? And when Christians bring faith to the screen, how often are they so honest about the hardships and unanswered questions that characterize the road of faith? Far too often, movies about the power of faith end up being about characters who want to improve things for themselves. Wilberforce’s story truly reflects the glory of Christ as we see him sacrificing so much for to redeem others.

Amazing Grace also benefits from a smart screenplay by Steven Knight. While the chronology of the film is a bit disorienting at times (flashbacks and “four years later” updates keep us on our toes), it’s remarkable how many characters have wit and personality in spite of their standard-issue period-piece costumes.

And the cast brings the script to vivid life.

Ioan Gruffudd may not have recommended himself for the part with his work in Fantastic Four, but he’s surprisingly engaging here. He’s definitely not the powerful orator that Wilberforce must have been, but he makes up for that by drawing us into the angst and worry that must have plagued the man as he fought formidable odds day after day.

In the role of “the girl,” Romola Garai takes the implausibly ideal character of Barbara Spooner, and makes her a charming romantic interest, even if the man she’s supposed to marry is too obsessed with his work to have time for falling in love. Garai is a scene-stealer in everything she does (although nobody has given her a role as juicy as her first in I Capture the Castle), and she’s radiant here.

But leave it to the veterans to steal the show. In every scene they’re given, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney mop the floor with everyone else, creating memorable characters that are surprisingly different from their other famous roles.

As the great reverend John Newton, who penned the famous hymn of the title, Finney gives so much to his few minutes on screen that in retrospect he seems to have been the leading man. This has the potential to be either an Oscar-nominated performance (or, more likely, one of the great supporting performances that Oscar forgot). We can only hope for a whole film about Newton, who deserves one, and Finney would make a grand headliner. In one emotional moment, he utters one of the simplest, clearest, most moving Christian testimonies this moviegoer has ever seen.

Just as memorable, Michael Gambon, so good at playing sinister, finds a lot of comedy in his own work as the sullen Lord Charles Fox.

The spectacularly named Benedict Cumberpatch brings fresh personality to the important role of the politically clever William Pitt. And all praise to Apted for giving Rufus Sewell a chance to escape his typecasting as a villain to play the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. The autobiographer Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, is played with heart and vigor by Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese singer best known for his joyous vocal contribution to Peter Gabriel songs like “In Your Eyes.”

On the down side, Ciarin Hinds is stuck playing a routine villain (just as he did in The Nativity Story), and Toby Jones of Infamous doesn’t fare much better.

There won’t be any great surprises along the way — most folks know that the abolition bill passed on March 25, 1807. And the movie wrings a few scenes for emotion that never produce a drop. (When Wilberforce brings aristocrats to the nightmare of a slave ship, their shame and weeping come far too quickly, too automatically.)

The film’s greatest flaw is its rush to keep us entertained. We’re shown that Wilberforce “found God” during quiet, meditative walks in the wild. Well, audiences could stand to learn the value of some thoughtful quiet too, and this film gives us precious little — it’s in too big a hurry to pack two hours with events.

But let us again praise Steven Knight, who is quite a versatile writer. (He also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, another fantastic script in which the oppressed and forgotten people are championed by a conscientious hero.) Knight has enlivened what might have been dry and workmanlike, peppering the courtroom scenes with personality and verve, spicing the romance with wit, and spiking the punch of courtly langauge with just enough pizzazz.

And Apted continues to distinguish himself as an impressively flexible director. His true masterpiece is his documentary series (7 Up, 28 Up, 42 Up, etc.) chronicling the lifetimes of several Brits born in the 1960s. The series is properly recognized by Roger Ebert as one of cinema’s most valuable treasures, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should take the time. And yet, in a strange way, Amazing Grace is essential Apted, for it reflects the same compassionate heart, the same desire to reveal hope in the midst of trouble, glory in the midst of struggle.

While it can’t quite reach the same spirited heights, Amazing Grace often reminded me of Milos Forman’s standard-setting period-piece biopic Amadeus. We learn a great deal about Wilberforce’s interests and personality along the way, from his care for animals to his extravagant generosity to the poor. And while it’s fair to say that too many films about the sufferings of Africans end up glorifying privileged white guys, Wilberforce’s contribution to history is long overdue for a standing ovation. So that complaint should not prevent anyone from seeing this film.

The film reminds us that Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey, and the closing moments take us there for a rousing bagpipe rendition of Newton’s great hymn. This choice is really unnecessary, after the film has driven its points home with such zeal. But then again, it’s true… history doesn’t often celebrate peaceful men, so perhaps that lack should encourage us to take a little extra time remembering the great William Wilberforce.

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