2007Director: Michael Apted
Cast: Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Ioan Gruffudd
n the most graphic and disturbing scene of Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce lectures to a group of wealthy Englishman. He stands on the deck of an empty slave ship, which bobs gently at the dock. Every man and woman produces a handkerchief, delicately sniffing at the smell, but Wilberforce advises deep breath and moral outrage. Otherwise? A prominent black abolitionist makes infrequent appearances to sadly shake his head. At one point, Wilberforce grows nauseous and flees when offered a slave during a game of poker. In a goofy fever dream, flames consume a chained child. Also, manacles are displayed.
Ostensibly a story of one man fighting against the horrors of slavery, Amazing Grace opens with darkness and the crack of a whip, but oppressed Africans are nowhere to be found. As the light – precious little light to be found in the dreary English countryside – seeps into the image, we behold two men beating a fallen horse. Wilberforce angrily hobbles out of his carriage, disregarding his own fragile health to set the world to right. This is, then, the story of a good man, one whose understanding of morality transcends the foibles of his society. As such, he is devoted to not one, but several political causes (among them an appreciation for collective government, quite a controversial notion as certain colonies begin to whine). “If you make the world better in one way, it becomes better in every way,” moralizes Amazing Grace.
As well it should, I suppose. In this day and age, mere censures of slavery won’t receive much credit from me. But I expected something more concerned with the abolitionist cause for a film whose tagline reads: “Behind the song you love is a story you will never forget.” Before penning his famous hymn, John Newton repented from his career as a slave merchant. As it happens, Amazing Grace is far more concerned with the man’s mentoring skills than his thoughts upon the African slave trade. Anyway, sins of omissions are far too easy to criticize, and the film does a fairly good job with the issues it does tackle.
Very shrewd, for instance, is the portrayal of England’s political climate after America and then France revolts. (Having recently seen Marie Antoinette, I was especially eager to side with the British crown.) Wilberforce grows furious when others suggest a slow end to slavery, but in the very next scene, the threat of outright revolution is simply too much. Friends, once dear, seem to be seditious snakes; more crucially, they may in fact be seditious snakes. In this paranoid environment, stability is the most important value, with all concern for human rights temporarily swept aside (I reference The Lives of Others here, and recent foreign policy). On one hand, the film bemoans England’s lack of perspective; on the other, it avoids condescension. (In one other example of striking moral maturity that, alas, fits nowhere else in this review, abolitionists discuss their foes, and conciliatory cries of “No shame! no shame!” eclipse the angry rants of one frustrated man.)
Modern relevancies aside, the film pins its worth on the portrayal of William Wilberforce, who seems much too sainted, what with the eloquent tones and charming features. The man’s only flaws lie in annoying moans as he lies in the throes of a vicious disease, or perhaps a glance of contempt as he prevents the aforementioned men from whipping their horse to death. Just when Amazing Grace veers dangerously close to idolizing its hero, however, the script intelligently subverts itself. In one scene, a servant sits on the grass alongside Wilberforce, all class distinctions merrily forgotten. As they embark on a heart-to-heart, potentially embarrassing dialogue is redeemed by an abrupt cut away from the conversation, leaving us questioning rather than admiring Wilberforce’s anachronistic integrity. Also appreciated is Wilberforce’s dismissal of “heavy-handed metaphorical advice” after particularly inspirational speeches.
The delightful structure also prevents the film from being too carried away with its own rhetoric. Cutting back and forth between Wilberforce as an enthusiastic young man and a sick, jaded politician, the timeline shows glimmers of hope during depressing years, and offers a counterpoint to scenes of idealistic enthusiasm. Elegantly contradictory, the two threads eventually converge, and the movie continues, much improved, to its moving finale.
I am sorry to report that the ending is very disappointing. Like The Lives of Others, Amazing Grace closes upon a snapshot of its protagonist. I can perhaps excuse the former film for this distasteful choice of aesthetics, for it portrays a man whose heroics shall only be recognized by one or two other men on the face of the planet. In this case, the snapshot emphasizes the man’s fleeting fame even as it immortalizes him. For Amazing Grace, the story of a man who lies buried in Westminster Abbey, I do not approve. As the credits roll, an alternate ending swings to the opposite extreme as an army of bagpipes and drums belts forth an ugly, militaristic rendition of the famous hymn. The music is used arbitrarily here, but such is hardly surprising with this film.
Amazing Grace is currently in wide release.