Without William Wilberforce, an 18th and 19th century English Member of Parliament, we might have never seen the likes Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. The fact that most Americans have never heard of him or his crusade to end the British slave trade makes the biopic, “Amazing Grace,” very compelling viewing.
Wilberforce was moved by his deep Christian faith and English abolitionists to fight for the end of the slave trade at a time when most opposed it because of the huge economic blow it would deal to the port towns, and country as whole, that so many in Parliament represented. Near the beginning of the film, Wilberforce considers leaving the House of Commons and committing his life to serving God, but most of his friends advise him that the most moral thing to do is to continue serving in office and keep trying to accomplish his unpopular cause. These friends include the soon-to-be prime minister, William Pitt, and a former slave trader-turned-monk John Newton. Over the course of his career, Wilberforce tried year after year to get his bill passed, only to see it defeated again and again. Weaker men would have given up, but he saw it through until it was overwhelmingly approved.
It’s certainly an inspired story, and it works well on the screen despite having a formulaic “overcoming adversity” feel. What keep it consistently watchable are its magnificent performances and its keen eye for period detail. The terrific sets, costumes and cinematography are top-notch and the actors fit right into the historical setting in way that few Hollywood ever could.
Ioan Gruffudd plays Wilberforce, and he carries the movie almost wholly on his shoulders. The supporting cast matches his powerful presence perfectly. Albert Finney plays Newton, who is haunted by the horrible (if profitable) sins he committed as a young man. Newton wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” from which the film gets its title. Though Finney doesn’t get much screen time, he steals every scene and makes a huge contribution to the movie’s emotional impact. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a likable and loyal Pitt and it’s easy to see why he and Wilberforce remained such close friends right up to his death.
Of course, a movie with an all-British cast wouldn’t be complete without the great Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the third and fourth “Harry Potter” movies). He brings his trademark gravity and sense of humor to the role of Lord Charles Fox, a man from another political party, who is among the first to become one of Wilberforce’s champions. Rufus Sewell is also very good as the anti-slavery revolutionary Thomas Clarkson.
There are only a few flaws that keep the movie from being a future classic and a contender for next year’s Oscar race. For starters, the script is a bit uneven. There are times when the dialogue is quite eloquent and moving, but there also many moments when it is awkward and clunky. Though the movie mostly does a good job of keeping the audience up-to-speed and unconfused with the story, it too often does so with expository dialogue that is a bit hard to buy.
The story also sometimes seems to be moving from scene to scene in way that makes the audience completely aware of its destination and outcome. It sometimes feels as if the director, Michael Apted is behind the camera saying, “Come on, let’s move it. We’ve got to get to the part where he meets his goal if we want to get to dinner in time.” Though I normally wouldn’t complain that a movie is too short (it clocks in just under two hours). The pacing feels more arbitrary than natural. It seems to me that the movie’s overall emotional effect might be greater if the story had a little more room to breathe. All the elements for a truly great film are there; they just need to be finessed a bit more.
I’m not sure if everyone would agree with me on this one, but I think the movie’s biggest flaw might be the overbearing score by David Arnold. Many critics have the same complaint about movie music written by Phillip Glass, but I generally find his scores so haunting that I don’t complain. And, for the record, I think there are many movies that just wouldn’t be as good without their music, even if they do call attention to themselves (“The Godfather” and “Lord of the Rings” movies are perfect examples). However there wasn’t anything about the music in “Amazing Grace” that deserved much emphasis. There were many scenes in the film that I thought would have been much stronger if the acting had been allowed to speak for itself and the music had been softer or eliminated altogether. It’s particularly distracting in Finney’s scenes with Gruffudd.
Despite its flaws, though, I highly recommend the movie. Wilberforce’s story is not one that children are likely to hear about in school and even if they did, it would not be as moving as it is on the screen.
“Amazing Grace” is rated PG. Parental guidance suggested.