“Amazing Grace,” the story of William Wilberforce’s effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire, delivers everything you want: solid script, outstanding performances, clever wit, tight drama, inspiring story.
The film from Philip Anschutz’s Bristol Bay Productions has understandably been positioned to appeal to religious and activist audiences, but it’s really a film for everyone, as exceptional filmmaking always is.
Welsh Actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced Y0-an Griffith) plays Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who works for several decades to cease the very trade that undergirds his own country’s economy. He does it not because he’s disloyal toBritain—as his opponents allege—but because of the conviction that slavery is morally wrong.
“Amazing Grace,” which opens today, begins in England in 1797, after Wilberforce is already downtrodden and ill from years of defeat on the issue. We then backtrack 15 years, to when Wilberforce is contemplating a life of religious introspection versus political service. His friend and political ally, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), wants to know if Wilbur is going to use his voice to “praise the Lord or change the world,” as if a distinct choice were called for.
Wilberforce of course enters politics full-on, but not without prodding from his former pastor, John Newton (Albert Finney), and a passionate group of abolitionists headed by Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell). Wilberforce not only enters the House of Commons, but he adopts abolition of the slave trade as a major platform. This puts him at odds with powerful MPs, many of whom are in the pockets of traders, like Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds) and Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon).
The wonderful script by Steven Knight and direction by legendary filmmaker Michael Apted cast Wilberforce as a formidable debater in the House of Commons, possessing an incisive mind, a clever wit, a moral compass. He’s outgunned, but his few allies are loyal, and his character even provokes a few converts.
“Amazing Grace” really isn’t about the slave trade as much as it’s about the effort to stop it. We don’t see any graphic slave treatment like in “Amistad,” but the verbal descriptions and debates about it are well done and make the point.
Marketing for the movie has relied on warm fuzzies for the hymn “Amazing Grace,” written by John Newton. ThoughNewton appears in only three scenes, director Apted and actor Finney play them to the hilt. As Newton, a trader-turned-abolitionist, says, “I’m a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior.” Not many movies can deliver such a line with complete sincerity.
Still, “Amazing Grace” is chiefly a film about politics—and a very good one at that. As Wilbur speaks out against the trade, he is accused of being anti-British, anti-money, anti-tradition, anti-everything that is good, noble, necessary. He’s labeled a seditionist.
Lord Tarleton argues that if Britain abandons the trade then the French will reap all the rewards. Lord Dundas bluntly says, “This great ship of state must not be sunk by a wave of good intentions.” Another MP, who secretly agrees with Wilbur, wonders how he could possibly vote to end the trade seeing as how he represents a port city whose inhabitants would stand to lose livelihoods.
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.
In addition to being a splendid film, “Amazing Grace” is a history lesson on Wilberforce and even a call to look at our modern-day forms of slavery and human trafficking. At its base, however, the film shows how a few people shift power dynamics to ensure they advance, not hinder, the common good.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language. Reviewer’s Note: Hardly any depiction—other than verbal—of slavery or the trade, but the effect of dialogue on the issue is impressive.
Director: Michael Apted
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: William Wilberforce: Ioan Gruffudd; William Pitt: Benedict Cumberbatch; John Newton: Albert Finney; Lord Charles Fox: Michael Gambon; Barbara Wilberforce: Romola Garai; Lord Tarleton: Ciaran Hinds; Equiano: Youssou N’Dour; Thomas Clarkson: Rufus Sewell
The movie’s official Web site is here.