“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

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“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

Ever since the release of the 2012 Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, there seemed to be this idea – especially with the British media – that Hollywood has remained silent regarding the topic of American slavery. I find this opinion ironic, considering my failure to find many U.K. films on British slavery.

When I first read McQueen’s criticism of Hollywood’s failure to produce a good number of films about American slavery, I decided to check the Internet to see how many slavery movies that the British film industry had produced. So far, I have only come across three – and one of them is “AMAZING GRACE”, the 2006 movie about abolitionist William Wilberforce‘s efforts to end Britain’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Looking back upon “AMAZING GRACE”, I could not help but feel that it would have made an appropriate companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “LINCOLN”. Although one focused upon the slave trade throughout Britain’s Empire around the Georgian Era and the other focused upon the United States’ efforts to officially end slavery during the last year of the Civil War, both explored the political impacts on the institution of slavery in their respective countries. But there were differences. “AMAZING GRACE” focused upon the end of Britain’s official participation in the Atlantic slave trade and received only a few accolades. “LINCOLN”, on the other hand, focused upon the end of slavery altogether (the country’s participation in the slave trade ended around the same time as Great Britain) and received a great deal of accolades.

“AMAZING GRACE” begins in the middle of its story with a very ill William Wilberforce traveling to Bath with his cousin Henry Thornton and cousin-in-law Marianne to Bath for a recuperative holiday in 1797. The Thorntons decide to play matchmaker and introduce him to their friend, Barbara Spooner. Although the pair initially goes out of their way to resist any romantic overtures, Barbara ends up convincing Wilberforce to relate the story of his career.

The movie flashes back some fifteen years into the past, when Wilberforce was a young and ambitious Member of Parliament (MP). After he experiences a religious enlightenment and aligns himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Wilberforce contemplates leaving politics to study theology. But friends such as William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Olaudah Equiano convinces him that he could be more effective doing God’s work by fighting for the issue of Britain’s slave trade. Wilberforce’s convictions are deepened by a meeting with his former mentor, John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned Christian, whose regrets of his past participation in the slave trade led him to become an evangelist minister and writer of the poem that led to the song, “Amazing Grace”. Despite great effort and assistance from his fellow abolitionists, Wilberforce’s efforts fail, thanks to the pro-slavery cabal in Parliament after fifteen years. Following his marriage to Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce takes up the cause again with different results.

I am going to be brutally frank. “AMAZING GRACE” did not strike me as superior or at the same level of quality as “LINCOLN”. I am not stating that the 2006 movie was terrible or even mediocre. I simply feel that it is not as good as the 2012 Oscar winning film. There is something about the style of “AMAZING GRACE” that lacked the more complex nature and characterizations of“LINCOLN”. I found it . . . well, ideal and very preachy at times. I realize this movie is about the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. But I believe that just because a story ( in any form) centers around an unpleasant topic like slavery does not have to be told with such a lack of moral complexity. I suspect that screenwriter Steven Knight tried to inject some kind of complexity in Wilberforce’s original reluctance to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and in his despair over the failure of the abolition cause by 1797. But the movie simply lacked that murky ambiguity that made movies like “LINCOLN” and “DJANGO UNCHAINED” more complex to me. Even worse, there were times when the movie fell into the danger of transforming Wilberforce into some idealized character – what is known by those familiar with fan fiction as a Mary Sue. The movie seemed to hint that the success of Britain’s abolitionist movement centered around Wilberforce. And I found that annoying.

I have one last problem with “AMAZING GRACE”. The use of flashbacks struck me as a bit . . . well, confusing. This especially seemed to be the case in the first two-thirds of the movie, which alternated between the present setting (1797) and the past (between 1782 and 1797). I hate to say this, but director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine did not handle these shifts in time with any real clarity. After my third viewing of the film, I finally got a handling on the shifts between the narrative’s past and present. Many film critics have pointed out the movie’s historical inaccuracies, which include the time period in which Wilberforce became interested in animal rights and the Duke of Clarence’s erroneous service in the House of Commons. Honestly? They are simply bloopers and nothing for me to get excited over.

Despite its flaws, I must admit that “AMAZING GRACE” is a first-rate and stirring film. It touched upon a subject that I knew very little of . . . namely Britain’s abolition movement. In fact, when I first saw the film, it reminded me that countries like the United States, Cuba, and Brazil were not the only ones with strong ties to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. These ties were especially made apparent in scenes which Wilberforce and his allies battled with the pro-slavery forces like Banastre Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews (the future King William IV). Although “AMAZING GRACE” mainly focused on the political aspect of abolition in Great Britain, there are two memorable scenes that reflect the horrors of slavery – Wilberforce and Olaudah_Equiano’s tour of a slave ship and Newton’s verbal recollections of his time as a slave ship captain. However, “AMAZING GRACE” also touches upon Wilberforce’s personal life – especially his courtship of and marriage to fellow abolitionist Barbara Spooner. And it is to Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai’s credit that they had created a strong and very believable screen chemistry.

“AMAZING GRACE” is also a very beautiful movie to look at. And that is an odd thing to say about a movie about slavery. As always, I tend to look at the production designer as the one responsible for the movie’s overall visual style. In the case of“AMAZING GRACE”, the man responsible was Charles Wood, who did an amazing job in recapturing Great Britain during the late 18th century. His work was ably assisted by the art direction team led by David Allday and Eliza Solesbury’s set decorations. And since “AMAZING GRACE” is a period drama, I cannot ignore the costumes designed by film icon Jenny Beavan. Needless to say, her costumes were beautiful and perfectly adhered to the movie’s time period and the characters. I especially enjoyed her costumes for actresses Romola Garai and Sylvestra Le Touzel.

All of the beautiful costumes, magnificent photography and impressive production designs in the world cannot save a movie. Aside from a first-rate narrative, a movie needs a talented cast. Thankfully for “AMAZING GRACE”, it had one. Ioan Gruffudd, whom I tend to associate more with television, gave an excellent and passionate performance as the dedicated William Wilberforce. Also, Gruffudd more than held his own with the array of more experienced performers that were cast in this film. I do not know when Benedict Cumberbatch first made a name for himself. But I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance as William Pitt, the politician who eventually became the country’s youngest Prime Minister. Cumberbatch did a first-rate job in portraying how Pitt’s idealism, political savy and professional ambiguity sometimes clashed. Romola Garai gave a beautiful performance as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, the politician’s wife of thirty-odd years. By expressing her character’s own passionate beliefs in the abolitionist movement, Garai portrayed her more than just Wilberforce’s love interest.

Albert Finney made several appearances in the film as former slave ship captain-turned-evangelist John Newton, who became Wilberforce’s mentor. Despite his limited appearances, Finney brilliantly portrayed Newton’s pragmatic nature about his past and the guilt he continued to feel for his role in Britain’s slave trade. I also have to comment on Rufus Sewell’s very entertaining performance as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. I do not think I have ever come across a performance so colorful, and at the same time, very subtle. The movie also benefited excellent support from the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Jeremy Swift, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Bill Paterson. Senegalese singer-activist Youssou N’Dour gave a solid performance in his acting debut as former slave-turned-abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. And Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel, who co-starred in 1983’s “MANSFIELD PARK” together, reunited to give entertaining performances as the Wilberforces’ close friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Without a doubt, I regard “AMAZING GRACE” as an entertaining, yet very interesting look into the life of William Wilberforce and his role in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. Granted, the movie came off a touch pretentious and there were times when the Wilberforce character came off as too idealized. But the movie’s visual style, intelligent script and excellent performances from a cast led by Ioan Gruffudd made this film worthwhile for me.

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