DVD Release Date: November 13, 2007
Theatrical Release Date: February 23, 2007
Rating: PG (for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language)
Running Time: 111 min.
Director: Michael Apted
Actors: Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Youssou N'Dour, Rufus Sewell
One of the great stories of a Christian who lived in the world but was not of the world, the story of William Wilberforce and his efforts to abolish slavery in England gets a thought-provoking treatment in Amazing Grace. Working tirelessly for the abolition cause, Wilberforce suffered through years of setbacks in Parliament until a key legislator joined his side, and time caught up with his favored cause.
Ioan Gruffudd stars as Wilberforce, referred to as “Wilber” throughout the movie, who’s first elected to the House of Commons in his early 20s. With the support of his friend, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), Wilberforce champions the abolitionist cause. Lending support is former slave Oloudah Equiano (singer Youssou N’Dour); Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), whose impatience with the progress of abolition leads him to advocate revolution as the quickest way to end the slave trade; and Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon), who, with the addition of his signature to an abolitionist petition with 300,000 names already on it, tips the scales of justice in favor of freedom and inalienable rights.
A radiant Romola Garai stars as Barbara Spooner, to whom Wilberforce confides his frustrations with the repeated failure of his anti-slavery legislation to find support among other lawmakers. The efforts of Wilberforce’s friends to set him up with Barbara provide some of the film’s most light-hearted and winning moments.
Best of all are the veterans Gambon as Fox, and, in the film’s strongest Christian role, Albert Finney as John Newton – Wilberforce’s childhood pastor and author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Haunted by his own role in the slave trade years earlier, Newton pushes Wilberforce to continue the abolitionist struggle. The movie wisely includes its own version of Newton’s famous quote, from late in his life, as conveyed to Wilberforce: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
Newton’s faith in the film is clear from the outset, but Wilberforce’s religion plays second fiddle here to his political activism. However, downplayed though it might be, Wilberforce’s faith is by no means ignored. He seeks counsel from Newton and confides in him that his childhood faith, though dormant for a period, has begun to re-emerge. He tells his butler that he’d rather stare at the creative wonder of a spider web than immerse himself in professional and social obligations. A man asks Wilberforce, “You found God, sir?” and Wilberforce replies, “I think He found me.” Later, he says, “I grew up and grew foolish. Now my faith is returning.”
With so much going for it, the film is easy to recommend, but it’s a qualified recommendation. Why? Because although director Michael Apted tells Wilberforce’s story competently, his nicely lit scenes are heavy on dialogue and very light on camera movement. Such an approach is not inappropriate for a historical drama, but after so many standard shots of characters talking to each other, the film begins to feel heavy and somewhat inert.
Also problematic is the flashback structure incorporated into the screenplay (written by Steven Knight, who also wrote Dirty Pretty Things), as Wilberforce recounts his legislative struggles to Barbara, until events catch up to the movie’s present day – before jumping ahead two years. Title cards that explain to viewers that the events on screen are taking place in “the present day” or “two years later” smooth over some jarring transitions.
Nevertheless, any moments of viewer confusion pass quickly and are overwhelmed by the tremendous stakes involved in Wilberforce’s struggle, and eventual success. Amazing Grace is an amazing story, a reminder that believers are called to persevere through trials, and that we sometimes reap rewards in this life as well as the next.
- Language: Lord’s name taken in vain; racial epithets; “a--”; “hell.”
- Sex/Nudity: None; very brief husband/wife kissing; cleavage on display.
- Violence: Graphic descriptions of horrible conditions aboard slave ships; a man displays a hand that’s missing two fingers; a man throws a chair.
- Smoking/Drinking: Some drinking, which is treated lightly; a man visits a grave and offers a “drink to victory.”
- Gambling: Some card playing, but Wilberforce is said later to have given it up.