Who’d have thought that the most compelling and thoughtful film to be presented during Black History Month would be a formal British import set in 18th century England with men running around in wigs? Amazing Grace was a film no one had heard of until a month or so ago when Samuel Goldwyn began a promotional blitzkrieg in theater lobbies and on movie screens. It just may have done the trick.
Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, an 18th century British parliamentarian who made his money as a merchantman before turning to politics while still astonishingly young. Admittedly green around the edges, young William is known as a force to be reckoned with. In Parliament, he is more than a formidable mind — his is a biting, sarcastic wit capable of tearing an opponent apart with a well-timed barb as likely as with a brilliant legal maneuver. People are sitting up and taking notice of this young, idealistic firebrand.
Privately, Wilberforce is in something of a quandary. A re-awakening of his dormant childhood faith has got him thinking about abandoning politics for the church. He sees God everywhere around him — from gossamer spider webs to his unshakable feeling that the enslavement of his fellow man is an abomination to his Creator.
“You found God, sir?” Wilberforce’s well-read servant asks one day.
“I think he found me,” Wilberforce replies. “Do you have any idea how bloody inconvenient that is?”
Sensing the resolve of his best friend’s principles, to say nothing of a unique political opportunity, William Pitt, angling to be Prime Minster, suggests that the time is right to confront the slave trade’s stranglehold on England. He introduces Wilberforce to abolitionists, Quakers, and ex-slaves who take his well-intentioned inclinations and rapidly turn them into hardened, unyielding convictions. They convince Wilberforce of his necessity to be both preacher and parliamentarian — the perfect fusing of action and meditation. He, they suggest, is to be God’s weapon to eradicate the blight of slavery.
From that moment on Wilberforce is unstoppable, like a man possessed. He introduces a bill in Parliament suggesting that the slave trade be abolished and is shouted down in derision. No matter. He had not expected it to be easy. The bread and butter of England’s vast coffers, the slave trade is the towering Goliath to wee Wilberforce’s David. Every year, for fifteen years, he introduces the same bill and each year, for fifteen years, it is defeated. His youth is eaten away. His health plummets. And a difficult war with France has pushed many to label his actions as treasonous insurrection. Disillusionment and bitterness inevitability set in. Enter the beautiful and stimulating love interest...
Produced in part by Walden Media, best known for bringing us The Chronicles of Narnia and other mostly children’s films, the Christian production company here throws its hat into the ring for more mature subject matters. While certainly illuminating the wellspring of Wilberforce’s religious convictions, the film never uses its captive audience as a bully pulpit. It strikes a beautiful balance between one man’s ardent beliefs and an unassailable moral outrage. If it ever gets preachy, it’s a sermon with which one can hardly take issue.
As such, it’s a pity it’s not more moving than it is. Amazing Grace has several moments of true pathos, but taken for all in all, the film is oddly uninvolving. True, the sentimentality is supposed to reside with Wilberforce and his struggles, but by showing so little of the reasons for that struggle — actual scenes of slavery are never seen other than in a surreal dream sequence — the film fails to tell the full emotional story. Likewise, in their efforts to create a worthy and long-overdue tribute to Wilberforce and his tireless charge, screenwriter Steven Knight and director Michael Apted have created a moral giant without complication or fault—more an idolatrous figure than an identifiable man. As a result it doesn’t resonate as deeply as it could or should.
Still, it is a fine looking film with terrific performances. One of my undergraduate professors used to joke that there are only so many actors in England and every once in a while a movie comes along in which nearly all of them are trotted out. Amazing Grace feels like that. And who am I to complain over such an abundance of riches? Ioan Gruffudd is now longer the man/child of Titanic, and he obviously got no end of practice wearing costumes such as these helming ships for A&E’s Hornblower films. He’s grown into his skin, a confident and assured man. He is joined by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Rufus Sewell, and Albert Finney as the former slave trader turned minister, John Newton, who wrote the song “Amazing Grace” and is still very much haunted by his old sins: “I am not strong enough to hear my own confession.”
Though it’s not as solid or inspiring as its creators might have wished, Amazing Grace is, nonetheless, a respectable and admirable historical biopic about unimpeachable single-mindedness and taking action for what’s right no matter the odds.