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May 2007 -- Amazing Grace. Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N’Dour, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Jeremy Swift, Nicholas Farrell, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Bill Paterson, and Albert Finney. Original music by David Arnold. Cinematography by Remi Adefarasin, B.S.C. Edited by Rick Shaine, A.C.E. Written by Steven Knight. Directed by Michael Apted. (Samuel Goldwyn Films/Bristol Bay Productions, 2006, Color, 111 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG).
Every decade or so, a motion picture comes along that captures its subject’s heroic essence so perfectly that the film becomes its subject. Such is the case with British director Michael Apted’s superb biopic on abolitionist William Wilberforce, passionately portrayed by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd.
Though Wilberforce is largely unknown to Americans today, this movie is an excellent introduction to the great English parliamentarian who devoted twenty years of his life to eradicating the slave trade throughout the British Empire. (All slavery had been abolished in Great Britain itself by a judicial decision in 1772.) A devoutly religious though thoroughly skeptical man, Wilberforce figured prominently during both the Enlightenment and Britain’s Evangelical Revival.
The movie opens as the eighteenth century draws to a close, with Wilberforce not at the beginning of his crusade to end the barbaric practice of slavery, but at what seems to be its most hopeless point. Once one of the youngest members of the House of Commons and a powerful orator, he’s now gaunt and dejected, having nearly exhausted his fortune and health in service of his fight.
Riding in a carriage along the muddy road in the rain, he happens upon a driver whipping his fallen horse. Moved to the animal’s defense (he was a founding member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), Wilberforce uses simple logic to persuade the driver to cease his brutal flogging, explaining that the horse would more likely regain its strength if left to recover for an hour. This simple exchange, in which he achieves his ideals through practical persuasion, reveals his forceful personality and unyielding integrity, traits that would serve him so well throughout his career as a legislator.
This is the best depiction of political machinations since Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent.
Wilberforce is on his way to the resort town of Bath, There, he hopes, the famous mineral springs will heal his body from the ravages of colitis and addiction to laudanum, an opiate prescribed by his doctors. When he arrives, however, his friends, economist Henry Thornton (Nicholas Farrell) and his wife Marianne (Sylvestra Le Touzel), have a different sort of tonic in mind to cure what ails him. They slyly maneuver their friend into a “chance” meeting with a ravishingly beautiful young abolitionist and social reformer, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). Resenting his friends’ manipulations, he at first rebuffs her. But the Thorntons are relentless and soon set him up again, bringing Barbara to dinner at Wilberforce’s house.
This time their chemistry is too powerful to deny. Barbara and William launch a long conversation that extends into the wee hours. The subject turns to his tireless but fruitless efforts to stop the slave trade, a story told in flashbacks that constitute the bulk of the film.
Elected to Parliament at twenty-one in 1780, Wilberforce barrels into the House of Commons full of piss and vinegar, taking on all comers with his confrontational debating style and razor-sharp wit. One dewy morning, as he lolls about his lawn, transfixed at the intricacy of God’s handiwork in a spider web, he experiences a spiritual epiphany.
After his conversion, Wilberforce’s interest in the affairs of state evaporates and he ponders a life of religious contemplation. But to those around him—especially William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), a friend in Parliament who’s angling to become Britain’s youngest Prime Minister—Wilberforce’s divine spark would be better put to practical use. Pitt asks him, “Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord, or to change the world?”
Wilberforce isn’t convinced until a group of Quaker abolitionists visit one evening. They bring along a liberated slave from the New World, Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), whose memoirs about his horrific passage from Africa would soon spark public outrage against the peculiar institution. He is shocked by the brand on Equiano’s chest (“to let you know you no longer belong to God, but to a man,” the former slave explains) and by his iron shackles.
“We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God, or the work of a political activist,” says radical abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell). Another guest (Georgie Glen) finishes the thought: “We humbly suggest that you can do both.”
Taking up the battle, Wilberforce introduces a bill every year to abolish the slave trade—and every year the bill is defeated. Yet he perseveres. In a nation where slavery is largely out of sight and mind, he constantly contrives ways to force it into the faces of polite society. He launches petition drives and sponsors meetings where Equiano lectures and sells copies of his book. At a gathering of MPs and their wives aboard a tour boat, the captain weighs anchor alongside a slave ship just returned from a run between Africa and Jamaica. Wilberforce notes that only a third of the original six hundred passengers survived the journey, and exclaims, “That smell is the smell of death. Slow, painful death. . . .Breathe it deeply. Take those handkerchiefs away from your noses! There now, remember that smell.”
Wilberforce ends his painful reminiscing, too taxed to go on. Barbara is clearly moved, finding inspiration in his struggle. The two passionately talk of their ideals, while the sexual tension silently builds between them. If Barbara’s fiery red tresses, flawless peaches-and-cream complexion, and corseted, heaving cleavage weren’t sufficient to bag the man, nothing would have stirred him. Without a word spoken of love (not to mention sex), romance blossoms instantly and inevitably.
As morning breaks, the two announce their engagement to their friends.
I like this little touch, coming as it did from out of left field. This is old-fashioned moviemaking at its best, with courtship scenes far more erotically charged than the crassly explicit sex in most movies nowadays.
Costume dramas usually leave me yawning, but not this time.
Their marriage and Barbara’s pregnancy become a beautifully simple metaphor for Wilberforce’s own regeneration of health and will. He heads back to Parliament to fight the good fight once more. Political intrigue moves front and center as Tories Wilberforce and Pitt, along with the abolitionist Clarkson and Whig MP Charles Fox (Michael Gambon, best known as the Headmaster in the Harry Potter series), put their heads together to plot the end of the slave trade. What follows is the best depiction of political machinations that I’ve seen since Otto Preminger’s political thriller Advise & Consent, based on Allen Drury’s novel. Witnessing Wilberforce’s ultimate triumph left me nearly breathless.
Costume dramas usually leave me yawning, but not this time. Production designer Charles Wood’s painstakingly researched and designed sets lends the movie period authenticity, while Remi Adefarasin’s factual cinematography downplays idiosyncratic camera angles and lets the actors and the settings predominate. Writer Steven Knight and director Apted’s deft balance of gravitas and levity give the whole business a timeless feel befitting its hero’s stature, but without clumsy signposting.
The only drawback, I felt, was that Albert Finney, in an otherwise bravura performance, seemed underused—especially considering his pivotal role as John Newton, the former slave-ship captain who later repented and penned the moving hymn for which the film is named. While the scenes depicting his influence on Wilberforce were succinct and heartrending, they also felt somewhat truncated.
Amazing Grace, whose release was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s legislative victory, February 23, 1807, has been well received by faithful and secular, conservative and liberal. Still, it generated some criticism on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, where guest columnist Charlotte Allen found a “cover-up” of Wilberforce’s evangelical Christianity. But the film was not about his religious motives per se; it was about his campaign to end slavery. I think she missed the forest for the trees: The slave-trade abolition was Wilberforce’s apotheosis, and that is exactly what Apted put up on the screen.
In a recent interview, producer Patricia Heaton (herself an outspoken, religiously motivated opponent of abortion) described Amazing Grace as an inspiring biography of “the Abraham Lincoln of England” and as an antidote to our “age of such cynicism and despair, particularly about politics and religion.”
I agree. William Wilberforce is historically significant for his courageous actions in stopping an inhuman evil. While religion played no small part in motivating those actions, I really doubt that so many talented people would have assembled such an unabashed labor of love as this movie had Wilberforce decided to spend his days contemplating God’s grandeur, while ignoring his own potential for personal greatness.