Judge Ben Saylor once was lost at Disney World, but his parents found him.
Behind the song you love is the story you will never forget.
I'm guessing a lot of Americans have never heard of William Wilberforce, the passionate member of Parliament who ended the slave trade in Great Britain during the late 1700s and early 1800s. I know I hadn't, and I'm sure there are worse ways of learning about the man and his work than watching Amazing Grace, a well-acted, engaging historical drama.
Facts of the Case
Young, witty Member of Parliament William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer), a man of principle and vision in a House of Commons dominated by elitists such as Lord Tarleton (Ciar án Hinds, Munich) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones, Infamous), undergoes a personal crisis when he finds God early in his political career. Torn between serving God or humanity, he is presented an opportunity to do both by ending the horrific slave trade throughout all of the British Empire. Aided by close friend and Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch, Starter For 10) as well as a group of abolitionists, Wilberforce begins a decades-long battle to abolish British slavery forever.
I passed on seeing Amazing Grace in theaters, as it seemed to me from the trailers to be a corny, overly sentimental picture high on fluff and low on historical accuracy and real drama. Happily, I was mostly wrong. With Grace, British filmmaker Michael Apted (Enigma) has delivered a film with enough dramatic and historical interest that I was able to make it through the story's occasional rough spots.
Amazing Grace works best when it concentrates on Wilberforce and what he is trying to accomplish. His scenes in the House of Commons are among the movie's best. This is not a dry, stodgy body with members who politely stand up, say a few words, and then sit down. Instead, members toss off barbs at one another while making their case for the issue at hand. These remarks are then followed by choruses of boos and/or cheers. In addition, there is the world outside the House of Commons, where the MPs broker deals and continue their discussion.
The House of Commons scenes benefit greatly from both screenwriter Steven Knight's (Eastern Promises) strong dialogue and the film's terrific cast. Gruffudd, with his excellent portrayal of Wilberforce, has atoned for at least one of the Fantastic 4 movies. Gruffudd, for some reason, seems to fare better in period works (like A&E's superb Horatio Hornblower series) than he does in contemporary films (You know which ones I'm talking about by now). The actor exudes wit, wisdom, and passion in the role, but also remembers to keep Wilberforce human. Gruffudd deftly communicates Wilberforce's anguish over how to proceed with his life, as well as the spiritual and physical pain he undergoes as he suffers defeat after defeat in his quest.
Like Wilberforce, Gruffudd is not alone in his efforts here. Cumberbatch turns in a strong supporting performance as the man who became Britain's youngest prime minister. Their close relationship, which is tested when Wilberforce considers leaving politics to pursue religion and is nearly torn asunder later in the abolition process, bears a passing resemblance to that between Peter O'Toole's King Henry II and Richard Burton's Becket in the classic film Becket. Cumberbatch, who I had never seen in anything before this, certainly looks the part of a youthful prime minister, but the way he carries himself lends the character a maturity that makes him that much more credible. Simply put, the scenes between Pitt and Wilberforce are a pleasure to watch.
The rest of the supporting cast is populated by many solid actors. Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale), so often the heavy in movies, convincingly plays against type as Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist with a more radical bent than Wilberforce. Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) appears to be having fun playing Lord Charles Fox, a respected MP who makes waves by joining up with Wilberforce. Both Hinds' Tarleton and Jones' Clarence come off as little more than stereotypical stuffed shirts, although that archetype seems to fit both actors well, and they're both fun to watch. Youssou N'Dour makes a strong impression as Oloudaqh Equiano, a freed slave who helps in the abolitionist cause. Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich), one of my favorite British actors, plays Wilberforce's mentor John Newton, a reformed slave trader who wrote the hymn that gives this film its title. In this kind of role, Finney could easily have gone over the top, but he (wisely) chooses not to.
Thankfully, Apted and Knight generally avoid being too heavy-handed in their filmmaking; with movies like this, there is always the danger of the Message overwhelming the story. Here, for the most part, that is not the case. Yes, perhaps Apted could have shown more of the horrifying practices of slavery (the film is rated PG), but that in and of itself represents another pitfall. Furthermore, showing graphic depictions of slavery isn't necessary to getting the film's point across. As Apted points out on in the commentary track of the film, the aim of Amazing Grace is to show the political wheeling and dealing that led to the abolition of the trade.
The DVD of Amazing Grace that I reviewed was a studio-issue review-only disc, but the image quality was very good. The sound quality was also fine; everything was clearly audible, and David Arnold's score was at an appropriate level. As for extras, the disc leads off with a feature commentary with Apted and Gruffudd. Recorded together, they talk nonstop throughout the film, touching on everything from the historical context of the film to the production of the film itself. Apted talks about how he was drawn to the project for its political aspects, which is interesting considering the director's predilection for biopics (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey). Overall, while both Apted and Gruffudd are a little too effusive about things here and there, this is a very enjoyable listen. Next there is a 25-minute making-of documentary. Featuring interviews with cast and crew as well as historical experts, this is a reasonably informative featurette that, like the commentary, does a good job not only providing context to the story, but also giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the film itself. There is also a short tour of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a music video of the title song performed by Chris Tomlin and a list of groups that helped get the film made. In addition, there are interactive discussion tools, study guides and discussion guide clips for use in the classroom.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The subplot featuring the romance between Wilberforce and Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, Atonement) is awkwardly shoehorned in the narrative and feels too much like Hollywood-style invention. The circumstances in which they meet, especially, reek of contrivance. Their succeeding scenes together only seem to be there as a way for Knight to advance the plot. Given Apted's apparent desire to make the film about the politics of ending the slave trade, it's a little surprising that he lets the film get bogged down in these scenes; thankfully, they don't constitute that much of the film's runtime.
Amazing Grace had the potential to be a didactic, overwrought film. Instead, thanks to strong writing, acting and direction, the film turns out to be an engrossing, informative look at a watershed period of world history. Yes, there are a couple missteps in the script, but overall, this is a solid film that's well worth your time.
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• Feature commentary with director Michael Apted and actor Ioan Gruffudd
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