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‘Amazing Grace’

“Amazing Grace” finally arrives on DVD today, nine months after its theatrical release.

Directed by legendary British filmmaker Michael Apted, “Amazing Grace” depicts William Wilberforce’s efforts in the late 18th century to sway Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire.

The film about the great abolitionist includes an all-star cast: Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds, Rufus Sewell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai and Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce.

When the film was released, I wrote in my review:

“Wilberforce faces multiple points of opposition, but all seem to reveal the same tendency for economics to trump morality. How Wilberforce withstood the onslaught of personal attacks and status-quo management, while simultaneously exercising influence to do the right thing, is the backbone of ‘Amazing Grace.'”

“Apted depicts political machinations in the House of Commons so deftly that you can’t wait to see the next maneuver and its outcome. The fact that these dealings are portrayed by such an accomplished stable of actors–Gambon, Hinds, Sewell and others–makes it all the more enjoyable.”

Watching it again on DVD, I still rank the film a considerable achievement. The performances are airtight, and it’s a shot in the arm to watch politicians do the right thing.

Now, the 118-minute film comes packaged with several extras: commentary, behind-the-scenes documentary, a music video and more.

Michael Apted and Ioan Gruffudd sit down together to provide an audio commentary, which isn’t bad. Both are understated, with Apted commenting at several moments how hard he tried to balance Wilberforce’s political and religious worlds. At one point, he almost seems to apologize for including the religious element, though he goes on to comment on his religious upbringing and the fact that his brother is a priest.

Chief among the special features is a 28-minute featurette, “How Sweet the Sound: The Story of Amazing Grace.” It includes not only a “making of” perspective, with interviews with Apted and many of the cast members, but it also includes sections on John Newton (who penned the famous hymn), Wilberforce and his friend/ally William Pitt, zealous abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, and also a brief examination of modern-day forms of slavery.

This latter topic is explored further in seven-minute feature on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. It offers a tour of the center, as well as more information about historical and present-day forms of slavery. This bonus is good and worth watching.

Rounding out the special features are the music video to Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace” and a 17-page study guide for the film (complete with pre-selected movie clips).

The film, from Christian businessman Philip Anschutz’s Bristol Bay Productions, is still being positioned as a movie with a cause. It is. But unlike many others of that ilk, “Amazing Grace” is first and foremost fine filmmaking.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.