In 18th century Britain, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, "King Arthur," "Fantastic Four") was the leader of the abolitionist movement who fought passionately to end the slave trade. Most members of Parliament were adamantly against this, believing that the economic stability of the British Empire depended upon it, but there were a few who dared support Wilberforce. One, William's minister John Newton (Albert Finney, "Big Fish"), was a reformed slave ship captain who made a public act of contrition by writing the beloved song "Amazing Grace."
While I'm sure many critics will trot out the old argument that this film stars a white man in a story about the black man's plight, they'll be missing the point of "Amazing Grace." This beautifully written (Steven Knight, "Dirty Pretty Things") film is many things, and while one of those is an indictment of the slave trade, it is not *about* the slave trade. This is the story of a man who refused to give up on his ideals, who maintained a strong friendship with a politically ambitious man without compromising and who found love with a liberal, independent spirit in 1797.
Director Michael Apted ("Enigma," "Enough," "49 Up") frames his film with a flashback structure, but it is an atypical one. Editor Rick Shaine ("Enigma," "Enough") gives equal weight to past and present time and keeps the action moving forward in both. We're introduced to a sickly Wilberforce stopping in pouring rain to protest the ill treatment of a horse before arriving in Bath where he's been lured by good friend Henry Thornton (Nicholas Farrell, "Bloody Sunday") ostensibly to take the waters. Henry and wife Marianne (Sylvestra Le Touzel) are up to matchmaking, however, but despair when both Wilbur and Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, "I Capture the Castle," "Rory O'Shea Was Here") reject the idea even as they secretly find common ground.
Fifteen years earlier and we're set amidst very spirited debate in the House of Commons where the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones, "Infamous") and Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds, HBO's "Rome") sniff at Wilberforce's democratic ideas. He's encouraged, though, by friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch, the upcoming "Starter for 10"), who introduces him to like-minded underground movers and shakers Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell, "The Illusionist," in one of his best performances), Hannah More (Georgie Glen, "Calendar Girls") and former slave Oloudaqh Equiano (Sengalese singer Youssou N'Dour). Through the years the group makes small inroads, gaining the support of Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") and grassroots boycotting campaigns, but it is the wily council of James Stephen (Stephen Campbell Moore) that finally brings them hard won success.
Besides the embarrassment of riches that is a 'who's who' of British acting talent, Apted's classy production boasts fine period reproduction and careful nurturing of the written word. Knight should be remembered at year's end for not only telling a compelling story, but for delightfully smart and witty dialogue that never feels unnatural in the actors mouths. From Jeremy Swift's ("Gosford Park," "Oliver Twist") poetry quoting butler to the arch observations of Prime Minister Pitt ('Why is it that you only feel the thorns in your feet when you stop running?'), Knight's script is a literary revel. Apted does let his film's energy deflate a bit in final acts, but he comes roaring back with a smart credit rollout that features The Irish Guards Pipe band playing the titular song outside Westminster Abbey, where both Pitt and Wilberforce are interred.
In 1784, 21-year old William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), newly elected to the British House of Commons, is a dedicated idealist. A few years later, his closest friend, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), becomes Prime Minister and the two set forth with the brash plan to put a bill before the legislature abolishing slavery in England. But, despite Wilberforce’s tenacity, the bill is defeated by the powerful pro-slavery faction. A decade passes before Wilberforce, recovered from a bout with poor health, is ready to do abolitionist battle once again in “Amazing Grace.”
Filmmaker Michael Apted displays his own brand of tenacity with his dedication to his documentary series that began in 1963 with “7 Up,” about a group of London seven-year olds from all walks of life, and continued, every seven years, until his latest installment, “49 Up.” But, I wasn’t expecting him to create such a finely crafted historical account of a man whose conscience drove him to bring about earth shaking social change that would rattle the British Empire to its core.
Wilberforce (Wilber to his friends) is an intelligent forward thinker who is appalled at the inhumanity of slavery. But, powerful men, in government and business, see the slave trade as too lucrative to give up and the young man is defeated by forces led by pro-slavery hardliners Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones). The battle for universal freedom takes its toll on Wilber and his failing health forces him to leave politics.
His health and spirits at rock bottom, Wilber visits his friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton (Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel), at their country home to recuperate. There, he meets Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), a beautiful woman whose progressive thinking is on a par with his. Together, they rekindle the anti-slavery movement and Wilberforce launches a second crusade to end the Britain’s horrific slave trade.
The account of Wilberforce’s years-long fight would be plenty to fill a film but Apted, working with a well-researched script by Steven Knight, adds another dimension with Wilberforce’s relationship with John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave ship captain who became obsessed with the 20000 lives he ruined and gave up the trade to dedicate himself to God. His experience caused him to write the song of the title that has endured ever since. Complimenting the fine performance by Gruffudd, Finney, as the now blind clergyman who acts as Wilber’s muse, gives a marvelous supporting performance that help make “Amazing Grace” even better.
The rest of the cast is richly populated, making the supporting characters flesh and blood people. Romola Garai is too good to be true as the level-headed love interest that sparks Wilberforce to triumph over the pro-slavers. Rufus Sewell gives a solid turn as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, as do Hinds, Jones, Farrell and Le Touzel. Even small roles, such as Jeremy Swift as Wilberforce’s most amusing butler, Richard, get good shrift.
Technically, things are first rate. Lenser Remi Adefarasin lends an assured hand to the crisp camerawork which complements the fine production design by Charles Wood. One particularly moving scene has former slave-turned-abolitionist, Ouaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), giving Wilber a tour of the horrid confines of a slave ship where 600 would board and only 200 disembark at the other end of their journey. The scene gave me a knot in my stomach over man’s inhumanity to man that is akin to that from a visit I made to the Dachau concentration camp. This is powerful filmmaking that looks great.
While very familiar with America’s own battle over slavery, I only had a cursory knowledge of Britain’s struggle for abolition. Helmer Apted and his talented team, in front of and behind the camera, have broken new ground in presenting a different historical perspective of great social change. The issue resonates, even today, as the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are threatened around the world and slavery still abounds.
Amazing Grace” is an important historical drama that comes out at a good time for movie-goers who want high quality, thought provoking entertainment, an unusual thing this time of year. I give it an A-.
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