Published March 1, 2007
“Amazing Grace” brings together a stellar cast to tell the story of William Wilberforce, the politician who is credited with ending the slave trade across the British Empire. Directed by Michael Apted, the film is always uplifting and is, in the end, a touching tribute to a man who devoted his life to improving the world around him.
Set in the late 18th century, “Amazing Grace” shows how Wilberforce, a young maverick member of Parliament, took on the establishment to outlaw the slave trade in Britain. Encouraged by his friend, William Pitt, Britain’s youngest prime minister, and aided by a diverse group of like-minded activists, Wilberforce educates the public about the misery of slavery. Although the abolitionist movement becomes a popular cause, Wilberforce runs up against a powerful, prevailing political sentiment that to outlaw the slave trade would ruin the British economy.
The course of his almost two-decades-long crusade seriously damages Wilberforce’s health and jeopardizes his political reputation, but he remains solemnly dedicated to eradicating the evils of slavery. His guiding light and moral advisor is John Newton (played by Albert Finney), a former slave trader who has seen the error of his ways and now lives the life of an ascetic, haunted by the souls of the men and women he once sold. Newton is the man who wrote the famous hymn, based on his own conversion; “Amazing Grace” is used throughout the film to illustrate and underscore the themes of the story.
The story is refreshing in that it shows a steadfast dedication to and enthusiasm about God. Wilberforce experiences a strong conversion and shows his appreciation for God in his love for all living things. He also proudly and enthusiastically discusses his devotion to God. After his conversion, he faces a moral decision about whether to continue his political career or pursue a vocation. His mentor, Newton, helps to convince him that he can best serve God through politics, by fighting for the rights of the weak and downtrodden. Wilberforce takes his mission to heart, and devotes himself wholeheartedly throughout his career to various political and social reforms, most notably abolition.
In fact, the film dwells more on Wilberforce’s zealot-like devotion to his causes than the causes themselves. The audience is given information in the same way Wilberforce and his followers are, second hand and in description. As a result, the movie is, on occasion, a little dry. By the end of the film, however, when Wilberforce finally accomplishes his goal, the dedication he has shown renders the moment truly touching.
The film is anchored by a remarkable group of actors. Ioan Gruffudd plays Wilberforce with a wide-eyed enthusiasm in the beginning that is later tempered by more somber but still passionate devotion to his cause. Rufus Sewell, as Wilberforce’s ally Thomas Clarkson, provides passionate outrage, as well as some rare humor, while Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones portray Wilberforce’s opponents Lord Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence with appropriate asperity. Bill Paterson shows a dignified resolve as Lord Dundas, who is forced to compromise his principles and must come up against the steely intimidation of Pitt played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Romola Garai is beautiful as the woman who captures Wilberforce’s heart, but her role basically serves as a sounding board for Wilberforce’s reminiscences. Finally, Finney and Michael Gambon tear up the scenery as the older, more experienced mentors who help Wilberforce when he needs guidance the most.
The look of the film is both beautiful and realistic. Detailed costumes, stunning buildings, and gorgeous countryside all play a part in setting the mood and tone of the period piece.
“Amazing Grace” is a well-meaning, sincere film that illustrates an important episode in the history of human rights. It shows the dedication of a good man both to his God and to his fellow man and demonstrates how, with perseverance, people can make important differences in the world in which they live.