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    Robert L. Jones
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    Amazing Grace (2006) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | March 6, 2007

     

    It was called "courtship" back then: Romola Garai goes straight  to Ioan Gruffudd's heart by appealing to his reason

    It was called "courtship" back then: Romola Garai goes straight to Ioan Gruffudd's heart by appealing to his reason

    Grace Under Pressure

    Rating: 4.5/5 ★★★★½ 

    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 comes that so perfectly captures its subject’s heroic essence, that it becomes its subject. Such is the case with British director Michael Apted’s superb biopic on abolitionist William Wilberforce, portrayed passionately by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd.

    Though Wilberforce is largely unknown to Americans today, this is an excellent introduction to the great English parliamentarian, who devoted twenty years of his life to eradicating the slave trade in Great Britain. A devoutly religious, though thoroughly skeptical man, Wilberforce figured prominently during both the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening.

    As the movie opens, the viewer finds Wilberforce not at the beginning of his crusade to end the barbaric practice of slavery, but what seems its most hopeless point: Once one of the youngest members of the House of Commons, as the eighteen century draws to a close we find the once powerful orator gaunt and dejected, having nearly exhausted his fortune and health in service of his fight. We first see him riding in a carriage through the rain, as he happens upon a driver along the muddy road, whipping his fallen horse ceaselessly. Moved to the animal’s defense by mercy (he was a founding member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), Wilberforce nonetheless makes the driver cease his brutal flogging by using logical persuasion, informing him that the horse would more likely regain its strength if left to recover in peace for an hour. This simple exchange—achieving his ideals through practical means—reveals the key to Wilberforce’s forceful personality and unyielding integrity that would come to serve him so well throughout his career as a legislator.

    He’s on his way to the resort town of Bath, where, he hopes, the famous mineral springs will heal his body, ravaged from bouts of colitis and suffering 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 Wilberforce, as they slyly maneuver their friend into a “chance” meeting with a ravishingly beautiful young abolitionist and social reformer, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garrai). Resentful at his friends’ manipulations, he at first rebuffs her. Yet, the Thorntons are relentless and soon set him up again, later bringing Barbara to dinner at Wilberforce’s house.

    Upon second meeting, however, their chemistry is too powerful to deny. Barbara and Wilber’s long conversation into the wee hours about his efforts in vain to stop the slave trade provides the vehicle for flashbacks, which comprise the majority of the story and dramatize Wilberforce’s tireless efforts as a younger man.

    Elected to Parliament at twenty-one in 1780, Wilberforce barreled 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, however, an epiphany strikes him as he lolls about his lawn, transfixed in examining the intricacy of God’s handiwork in a spider web.

    Caught up in his conversion experience, Wilberforce’s interest in the affairs of state evaporates as he’s about to devote himself to a life of religious contemplation. Yet, to those around Wilberforce—especially his friend in Parliament William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a pointed, astute performance), angling to become the youngest Prime Minister of Britain at twenty-four—the divine spark firing within him would be better put to practical use. “Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord, or to change the world?” Pitt asks.

    Wilberforce isn’t convinced until a group of Quaker abolitionists visit one evening, bringing along a liberated slave from the New World, Oloudaqh Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), whose memoirs about his horrific passage from Africa would soon spark public outrage against the peculiar institution. Seeing for the first time direct evidence of slavery’s evils, 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 iron shackles, Wilberforce gains new perspective when radical abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) makes a rhetorical point. “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God, or the work of a political activist,” he says. Another guest (Georgie Glen) finishes the thought, “we humbly suggest that you can do both.”

    Throwing himself into his task with all his vigor, Wilberforce floors a bill to abolish the slave trade every year—and every year the bill is defeated. Yet, he perseveres. In a nation where slavery is largely out of sight (thus, out of mind), Wilberforce constantly contrives ways to force it into the faces of “polite society.” He launches petition drives; he sponsors meetings for Equiano to lecture at and push copies of his book; at one gathering of the well heeled aboard a tour boat, the captain weighs anchor alongside a slave ship. Noting only one-third of the original 600 passengers survived the journey from Africa to Jamaica, Wilberforce exclaims to the MPs and their wives, “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.”

    As his confession to Barbara ends, Wilberforce speaks as though his efforts lay buried in the distant past. Yet, while he seems too taxed to go on, Barbara finds only inspiration in his struggle. As morning breaks, the two announce their engagement to their friends. I like this little touch, seemingly coming out of left field: Without a word spoken between them of love (not to mention sex), their romance is subtly implied. While the two passionately talk of their ideals, sexual tension silently builds between them. This is old-fashioned moviemaking at its best: If Barbara’s fiery red tresses, flawless peaches and cream complexion and corseted, heaving cleavage weren’t sufficient to bag the man, then I suspect nothing would have stirred him. Ironically, I found the courtship scenes more erotically charged than the crassly explicated graphic sex in most movies nowadays.

    Their marriage and Barbara’s pregnancy is a simple and beautiful metaphor for Wilberforce’s regeneration of health and will as he heads back to Parliament to fight the good fight once more. The movie’s political intrigue story really hits its stride here as Wilberforce, Pitt, Clarkson and Whig MP Charles Fox (Michael Gambon, best known for his role as Headmaster in the Harry Potter series) put their heads together to effect the end of the slave trade. This is the best I’ve seen in this genre since Otto Preminger’s political thriller Advise & Consent, based on Allen Drury’s novel.

    The ending nearly left me breathless, witnessing Wilberforce’s ultimate triumph. The movie’s release was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the slave trade’s abolition on February 23, 1807. Although Amazing Grace is a costume drama (which usually has me yawning), production designer Charles Wood’s painstakingly researched and designed sets give the movie an authentic feel, while Remi Adefarasin’s factual cinematography downplays idiosyncratic camera angles in favor of letting the actors and the settings predominate. Writer Steven Knight and director Apted’s deft balance of gravitas and levity gives the whole business a timeless feel befitting its hero’s magnitude, but without clumsy signposting.

    The only drawback, I felt, was that veteran actor Albert Finney—in a bravura performance—seemed underused, considering his pivotal role as John Newton, the former captain of a slave ship 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.

    Nonetheless, Amazing Grace has been well received by faithful and secular, conservative and liberal, alike. Still, it has generated some criticism on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, where guest columnist Charlotte Allen finds only a “cover-up” of Wilberforce’s fundamentalist brand of nascent Methodist Christianity. This is another entry in the Opinion Journal’s cloying series of “debunking” reviews by people who might be subject-matter experts, but haven’t the foggiest idea about what it takes to make an entertaining flick. I think she’s missing the forest for the trees: The slave trade abolition was Wilberforce’s apotheosis, which is exactly what Apted put up on the screen.

    In a recent interview, that’s how producer Patricia Heaton (no stranger to religious conservatism she, an outspoken Pro-Life advocate) described Amazing Grace, as an inspiring biography of “the Abraham Lincoln of England,” and 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 so many talented people would’ve 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 greatness.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Biopics, Costume Dramas, Dramas, Independent Films, Movie Reviews, Political Dramas | No Comments »