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Amazing Grace - the story of William Wilberforce

Amazing Grace - the story of William Wilberforce
Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner
Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner
William Wilberforce aboard the slave ship Madagascar
William Wilberforce aboard the slave ship Madagascar
William Wilberforce presenting his petition to Parliament
William Wilberforce presenting his petition to Parliament

AMAZING GRACE


Most Inspiring Film, 2007 - 4 Stars

Fine, Intelligent Film is Weak on Emotions

Amazing Grace is a character study of the greatest humanitarian, and - if works need to be mixed with faith to be effective - perhaps the greatest Christian in British history. After coming to the faith, William Wilberforce met with his good friend William Pitt, England's future Prime Minister, who advised that if he really wanted to help people, he should go into politics rather than the ministry. This was later confirmed by his childhood pastor, John Newton, who wrote the song from which the film gets its name.

Amazing Grace opens with Wilberforce intervening on behalf of a horse that is being beaten to death by the side of a road; and, for the rest of the film and the remainder of his life, he fought for the rights of all living creatures. At a time when there were very few social institutions beyond workhouses and prisons, Wilberforce personally began or participated in 69 charities to help both humans and animals.

However, the accomplishment for which Wilberforce is best known is the subject of this film: he almost single handedly ended the slave trade in Great Britain. The vast majority of members in the British House of Commons owned some interest in the trade; so, getting them to denounce slavery and change the laws regarding it was next to impossible. Yet, with perseverance, twenty years of annually introducing his bill, tirelessly working to educate and change the opinion of the public, and great detriment to his own health, Wilberforce finally prevailed. On the day he did, he got a standing ovation from his fellow Members of Parliament. There has never been a better example of how doing the right thing - no matter how long and difficult, and no matter what the personal sacrifice - pays off in the end.

This is also a prime example of British drama, which is second to none in the world. The cast is a virtual who's who of British cinema: Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower, King Arthur, Black Hawk Down) as William Wilberforce; Albert Finney (Tom Jones, Scrooge, Erin Brockovich) as John Newton, former slave ship owner, Wilberforce's childhood pastor and the man who wrote the song, "Amazing Grace"; Benedict Cumberbatch (Hawking) as William Pitt the Younger, who became England's youngest Prime Minister at age 24; Romola Garai (Vanity Fair) as Barbara Spooner, a beautiful young redhead that shares Wilberforce's passion for reform, and with whom he had a whirlwind courtship and marriage; Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds; and introducing Youssou N'Dour as Olaudah Equaiano, a former slave turned best-selling author, and one of the key figures in the fight to end slavery.

Ioan Gruffudd is superb at portraying Wilberforce over a twenty-year period, in health and out, through public battles and private, showing disinterest and then love for Barbara Spooner, agonizing over the plight of his fellow creatures, delighting over God's smallest creations as well as His greatest victories. Albert Finney is remarkable as the elderly John Newton, especially when you compare it to his performance as the elderly Scrooge thirty-seven years earlier: they are almost identical. When he utters his famous line, "I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior," chills ran down my spine. Romola Garai infuses the role of Barbara Spooner with fire, wisdom and tenderness. And Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful as William Pitt, Wilberforce's lifelong friend. The wig-wearing Members of Parliament are also interesting to listen to and watch.

The costumes and sets are extraordinary, cinematography good - "old school," like Chariots Of Fire - and direction by Michael Apted solid, based on a decent script by Stephen Knight. I only had one disappointment: the film stayed on a intellectual level throughout and never ventured into the realm of the emotions. This seems strange to me, given the subject matter. One of the worst decisions the filmmakers made was to have Ioan Gruffudd, standing on a table, sing "Amazing Grace" to his fellow MP's. Instead, they should have had a former slave sing it - a female, preferably - in a soulful gospel style, and to a sympathetic audience of other former slaves who would have been in tears listening to it. That would have had us in tears. That was what was needed, and I cannot believe they didn't think of it.

A second bad decision was not to show any slaves: in Africa, on the ships in their 48" x 18" berths, or in the West Indies working on the sugar cane plantations. As the plight of the slaves was being described, we needed to see it in order to empathize with them. Film is primarily a pictorial and emotional medium. We need to see the slave being mistreated. We need to see the slave being redeemed. We need to see the former slave singing the song of her freedom that was written by the man who had formerly beaten her. By keeping the film on a intellectual level, it lost much of its potential for impact.

The best part of the film for me was the final rendition of the song "Amazing Grace," played by (I assume) the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in front of Westminster Abbey, where Wilberforce's body now lies next to his friend William Pitt. The shot begins at the back and facing the corps, with only the bagpipes showing and playing. As the camera moves ahead of the marching guardsmen, it reveals the drums, who join in the song; then the horns, who add to the mix; and finally the woodwinds. It finishes with a full shot of the entire band, and then pans up to reveal the top of Westminster Abbey. It's a gorgeous shot, moving song, and wonderful way to end.

We need far, far more films like this one about the real heroes of Christendom - but with all accompanying emotions. Still, it's a fine tribute to a great man, and long overdue.

Waitsel


Waitsel Smith, February 24, 2007


Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Images © 2007 Bristol Bay Productions. All Rights Reserved.

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