Scripted by Steven Wright, who devised Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and wrote the screenplay for Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things , and directed by Michael Apted, who has alternated between documentaries and feature films, Amazing Grace is a very decent contribution to the present bicentennial celebrations of the parliamentary bill that outlawed the slave trade in the British empire.
- Amazing Grace
- Production year: 2006
- Countries: UK, USA
- Cert (UK): PG
- Runtime: 118 mins
- Directors: Michael Apted
- Cast: Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Gambon, Romola Garai
As a biopic of Whig MP and dedicated abolitionist William Wilberforce, it's not exactly innovative in the Citizen Kane manner. It's more like those earnestly worthy prewar Warner Brothers cinebiographies (invariably starring Paul Muni or Edward G Robinson) celebrating the achievements of Pasteur, Reuter, Zola, Juarez or Dr Ehrlich, that bring to mind Longfellow's lines: 'Lives of great men all remind us,/ We can make our lives sublime/ And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time.'
Much of the film unfolds in flashback as Wilberforce (an attractive, uncloying performance from the handsome Ioan Gruffudd) walks around the garden of a country house striking Gainsborough-like poses with his intended, the intelligent fellow radical Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) while telling her of his aims and political frustrations. Wisely, the movie steers clear of dramatic depictions of the slave trade and life on the plantations (avoiding the sensational, sado-masochism of such films as the dubious Mandingo and its dire sequel, Drum
It prefers reports by visitors to the West Indies and there is a powerful scene where a histrionic Reverend Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) produces a set of chains and manacles and demonstrates their use. The pro-slavery advocates get the opportunity to present their economic case (of a kind subsequently evoked to defend child labour and oppose the minimum wage), but we know where the film is leading and we relish scenes where the complacent and cruel have their smug smiles removed.
The best sequences involve Wilberforce's mentor, John Newton (Albert Finney), the former captain of a slave ship, still haunted by the ghosts of his past after years in holy orders. He wrote the hymn 'Amazing Grace' whose rousing melody and gently robust words never fail to move. There's a wonderful moment where Wilberforce sings it a capella to silence the racist aristocrats at a gentlemen's gambling club, and another at the end when a piper accompanied by a military band plays it outside Westminster Abbey, where Wilberforce is buried beside his friend William Pitt, their private and political relationship being at the core of the film.
David Denby of the New Yorker makes a fascinating point in his review of Amazing Grace. 'In this country [the States],' he writes, 'we have great actors, but not these kind of great actors - men and women who can play historical figures and hold to formal syntax without losing their sense of play. Our founding crew of statesmen and intellectuals were no less gifted than Pitt and Wilberforce, but...here isn't a single good movie devoted to their efforts. At this point, no one can look at an American in a powdered wig without laughing. Popular culture and the democratisation of taste and style have made our history irredeemable as entertainment - which is a loss, though I don't suppose anyone will do much about it.'