There are pathetically few movies that are able to deal with political themes and still maintain a human touch that transcends the specialist category. But one of them on the top of the list is Amazing Grace, a biopic of the man who was instrumental in bringing an end to the British Slave Trade. As a period piece, it excels for good taste, balance, and a keen ability to connect the past with the present. As a story, it succeeds in intriguing, inspiring, and warming hearts with hope for humankind.
Ioan Gruffudd stars as William Wilberforce, an energetic young Member of Parliament, who experiences a spiritual reawakening and becomes an Evangelical Christian. Discerning whether or not he should withdraw from the world and pursue the ministry, his friend William Pitt convince him to stay in politics by connecting him with abolitionists seeking to put an end to the British slave trade. Deciding to use his talents for the good of all, Wilberforce takes up the challenge, but his participation in the controversy makes him increasingly unpopular among powerful parliamentarians who have a vested interest in the trade.
Working tirelessly to change the hearts and minds of the British people and show them the great inhumanities of the trade, Wilberforce makes allies with honest yet unkempt activist Thomas Clarkson, the former-slave turned elegant man-of-means Olaudah Equiano, and even the self-serving political survivor Lord Charles Fox. Together, they gather thousands of signatures in favor of abolition to present before the parliament. He also makes a point of impressing upon the powerful landed classes the plight of those suffering under their very noses, bringing to light how African men, woman, and children are made to endure a horrendous sea voyage and sold to sugar plantations to be worked to death.
But in spite of the evidence, many politicians such as Lord Dundas decide to play it safe and refuse to vote for complete abolition. Even many of Wilberforce’s supporters fail him by going to a comic opera instead of turning up to vote. When the French Revolutionary Wars begin, Parliament shoves the issue on the back-burner, and Wilberforce is accused of being unpatriotic. Disillusioned, he considers resigning from his position in the government, and some of his supporters adopt revolutionary sympathies. But then Wilberforce meets his future-wife, Barbara Spooner, who encourages him to persevere in the face of any and all obstacles. From that point on, he is a newly driven man.
This movie adroitly captures the dangerous ebb and flow of the political world while at the same time bringing out personal stories against the backdrop of epic historical events. The characters are portrayed in a very human light, whether they are from the upper or lower classes, pro-slavery or pro-abolition. The costuming and overall setting is exquisite and manages to capture the right balance between realism and flourish, accessibility and old-fashioned flare. We get to see fine dining halls, charming country estates, stuffy parliament chambers, dingy city streets, and bustling docks, getting a full-scaled panorama of 18th century Britain. The music score is also top-notch (highly recommend you get the CD!) which managed to bring out the flavor of both British and African cultures, interweaving past and present instruments flawlessly.
Ioan Gruffud is at his acting best in his portrayal as William Wilberforce. Like Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, the character is so full of depth and humanity he seems to literally come to life through the actor depicting him, and by the end of the film, we can’t help but be an admirer of him. After all, he’s an affable and intelligent young man with a great career ahead of him, but he risks scuttling it in order to aid the oppressed and nearly destroys himself physically and emotionally in the process. He becomes a suffering soul, and a living martyr for those who have no voice. Gruffudd captures all these things with great passion and grace.
Romola Garai makes a wonderfully warm and witty Barbara Spooner, urging Wilberforce to come out of his slump and return to the parliament floor. Her chemistry with Ioan Gruffudd on screen is delightful, especially their desperate attempt to find something to argue about in front of their match-making friends! One thing that bothered me, however, was the low-cut neckline in the dresses she usually wore in the production. I know that this could just be attributed to late 18th – early 19th century fashion, but I just thought it was a bit revealing and purposely seductive. It’s a Hollywood thing, but I must admit I was hoping for better.
Rufus Sewall’s portrayal of Thomas Clarkson is lovably bluff and scruffy, revealing a good heart but also a dangerously passionate streak that threatens the whole enterprise. He gets into confrontation with Wilberforce over how best to handle their repeated defeats in parliament. Clarkson suggests that a revolution might be their only hope, but Wilberforce forcefully reminds him that he has taken an oath of loyalty to the king (who I do we wish would have made an appearance at some point in the film!). Clarkson retorts that the king is insane, and that he intends to go over to Paris to mingle with the revolutionaries. After several moments of tense listening, Wilberforce cuts him off, and orders him never to speak of revolution in his presence again.
This is such a British moment in the film, because it exemplifies the realization Wilberforce experiences, and that the British people throughout history have clung to, that they must “hold back from the brink”; that needed changes can come through the due process of law, without shattering the governmental structure. Indeed, the film-makers evidently understood the importance of this project to the way people perceive the British People and their history and culture, because they made sure that all the filming would be done in Britain and that all the actors cast for the movie were British.
The other great thing about Amazing Grace is the way that spiritual themes are handled without being preachy. Wilberforce is a deeply religious man, and the virtue of this shines through his actions and worldview, but the script never reads like a proselytizing pamphlet. It’s sincere; it’s real; it’s naturally moving. I love the way he is portrayed as praying simply and openly, and the motif of the spider web symbolizing his love of The Creator and all His Creation. This point is also brought to the fore when he gets out of his carriage on a rainy night to stop a man from beating his horse, and the man listens to him because name of Wilberforce has now come to be respected by many as a symbol of principle.
Getting to see Ciarin Hinds portray Banastre Tarleton in his post-revolutionary years was quite a treat. I must admit it took me a few minutes to make the connection between the pro-slavery MP and “Bloody Ban” of wartime infamy. But when he held up his hand to reveal missing fingers that he had lost fighting with the American rebels, it suddenly dawned on me, and I yelped, “It’s Ban!!” Nice to see him depicted as a well-rounded character, instead of the over-the-top villain in The Patriot. And at least this sets the record straight that he didn’t get impaled by Mel Gibson, but moved on to greener pastures in career as a consistent un-huggable.
There are a few other moments in the film that hearken back to the American Revolution. One is when Wilberforce speaks out in favor of ending the war and making peace the rebels. It is often forgotten that there was a whole movement within British parliament opposing the taxes levied in America and seeking to give her representation in the mother country. When things began to look increasingly hopeless about politically reuniting, they urged a swifter peace to avoid further bloodshed. Another interesting moment in the film is when a legless beggar crawls over to Wilberforce in the street, saying that he “lost his legs fighting the Yankee rebels”. I wonder how often people ever think about the human cost of that war for Britain, and the social aftermath of it on both sides…
Benedict Cumberbatch makes a wonderfully erudite and elegant William Pitt. One particularly good line is when Wilberforce exclaims that it is next to impossible for Pitt to become prime minister in his 20’s, to which he responds, “We’re too young to realize certain things are impossible, which is why we will do them anyway.” In reality, Wilberforce was never able to visit Pitt’s deathbed as shown in Amazing Grace, and they were actually somewhat estranged over some political differences at the time. But the portrayal of their friendship is touching nonetheless, and in reality, Wilberforce always seems to have treasured the memory of it.
I’ll admit that Albert Finney as John Newton looks rather different than I pictured him and that his portraits portray him, and I do sort of wish the film focused a bit more on his personal experiences since he is the one who wrote the title song! But he still does serve as a powerful example of the older generation passing on the mantle to the young, with his impassioned exhortation to “blast the slavers out of the water”. It is also deeply moving when he weeps and wonders if all the people he sold into slavery had names, and supposes that they must have been “good African names.”
In connection with that, Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano puts a face and a voice to the millions of unnamed victims of the slave trade, whose lives were cruelly misused and cut short by the greed of others. Although Equiano pours himself out in the abolitionist cause, he tragically does not live to see it succeed. Nevertheless, Thomas Clarkson does visit to grave when abolition is on the brink of passing, tells him the good news, and “shares a bottles” with him, drinking some and pouring the rest into the ground.
One of the ironic inaccuracies of the movie had to do with the fact that the traditional tune of “Amazing Grace” is believe to have been added to Newton’s hymn at a much later date than the events depicted in the film. In spite of this, Wilberforce is shown singing the hymn to this tune and having it played at his wedding! While on the subject, it must be noted with some pain that, unlike the real Mr. Wilberforce who was said to have a glorious voice, Ioan Gruffudd really can’t hold a tune, and it shows when he stand up on that table belts out the beloved hymn before the unsympathetic throng! Oh, well. Chalk it up to good intentions gone awry?
The finale is always a tear-jerker, when the trade is finally abolished and Wilberforce, struggling to contain his emotion, is given a round of applause. He exchanges a knowing look with his beloved wife in the balcony, realizing that without her, he may never have seen the cause to completion. The end credits are set against a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace” played by a military pipe and drum band, and we get to see the kilted players lined up in rows outside Westminster Abbey, where both William Wilberforce and William Pitt are buried. I mean, how British can you get?
While pondering on the sheer difficulty of the fight to an end to the Slave Trade and how difficult it was to end, I cannot help but make a comparison to the injustices of our own era in so very many areas and our various struggles to bring about societal change. That is why stories like this one really must be told, and heroes like Wilberforce must be remembered. That is why I am so grateful this movie was made and is able to communicate his story in our modern era. It stands as proof that faith and endurance can overcome the most strident opposition. It is a manifestation of truly amazing grace.