March 12, 2007

Amazing Grace

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If you have heard the name Wilberforce before, you likely are thinking of Samuel Wilberforce. Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, was involved in a famous debate with Thomas Huxley (a scientist known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”) about evolution the year after On the Origin of Species was published. This debate is not discussed in Amazing Grace. In this movie, the Wilberforce at its center is William Wilberforce, a man with a delightfully alliterative name, who was actually the father of Samuel Wilberforce.

At the time of the setting of the film, America has recently gained its independence, and England has gone onto other matters. Enter William Wilberforce, a bright-eyed and naïve young member of the British Parliament who sets out to put an end to the slave trade in the British Empire, and in so doing, provide the makings of an inspirational film more than two hundred years later. Wilberforce is played by Ioan Gruffudd, best known as the elastic Mr. Fantastic and as someone born with an inordinate number of vowels in his first name (according to IMDB, his name is startlingly pronounced “Yoan Griffith”).

The movie jumps back and forth between various points in the late 17th-century, in order to portray the full arc of Wilberforce’s abolitionist crusade. It depicts the beginning of Wilberforce’s political career, when he is little more than a rousing speaker in the House of Commons with a few influential friends. It moves on to the point at which he finds his calling as a voice most emphatically against slavery, when he then presents his case and is summarily beaten down by the realpolitik of the day. He finds love, picks himself up after his parliamentary losses and finds redemption and success. Along this journey he has as friend and confidant William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who eventually becomes prime minister, which certainly helps his cause.

Amazing Grace aims at emotional inspiration. It unabashedly attempts this through music, rousing speeches and the theme of the pursuit of justice. And I liked that. While I know I can be a sucker for such matters, those things do not lessen its quality. Amazing Grace is out to make one aware of the extremely elevated moral sensibility of William Wilberforce while infusing a bit of that into the viewer, and it does this successfully.

In addition, the movie takes its title from the song “Amazing Grace,” the hymn whose story and author are together well woven into the plot. John Newton (Albert Finney, whom you might recognize as Erin Brockovich’s boss), an Anglican preacher and former slave-trader, was both the song’s writer and a friend to William Wilberforce. Newton is blind by the end of his life, making the line “I was blind, but now, I see” that much more poignant, and it also might remind the viewers of other famous blind poets, such as Homer or Milton.

Unfortunately, due to the number of flashbacks and time-switches, it is sometimes a bit confusing to figure out when things are happening, although not too bad. The filmmakers attempt to help matters by labeling the times, although at one point in the film, the viewer is informed that a flashback is complete and the scene has now moved to “The Present Time.” Judging by their style of clothing and lack of email, however, it did not seem to be 2007.

Nonetheless, that is a minor quibble. This movie is full of fine actors who do a good job of delivering melodramatic speeches. In addition to those mentioned already, Michael Gambon (Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore, sans gowns and beards) plays an older influential politician, and here as always, he plays his part well. Overall then, Amazing Grace is an enjoyable portrayal of the fight to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire. So if you like historically infused stirring stories, you won’t be disappointed. Check it out.