Film Review: Amazing GraceWilliam Wilberforce is one of the true heroes of the Christian faith, and rightly so. For all those who, over the centuries, have claimed Jesus' name but totally missed the point of his message, Wilberforce stands as one who lived out the principles of his master and made a difference.
His is an inspiring story, not just because of what he achieved, but because of how he achieved it. There was no quick fix solution; it was a life's work. He didn't reach his destination by riding a wave of popularity; initially, support for the slave trade was huge. Progress was slow and difficult. The wages of his campaign were ill health. And he never lived to see the full extent of his dream reach fulfilment – he died a month before slaves throughout the British Empire were given their freedom.
Strangely Amazing Grace only follows the story up to the 1807 Slave Trade Act. This act ended the trade in slaves, but didn't free the existing slaves. This typifies the film's greatest weakness – it doesn't have that much to say about the rights and wrongs of slavery itself. Amistad, featured slaves making passionate pleas for their freedom as well as examining the shocking way in which they were transported. Amazing Grace focuses only on the latter. Once slave trading has finished, the film has little to say about existing slaves regaining their freedom.
Unfortunately, this then leaves the film with little to say about the modern day slave trade. To be fair, perhaps this is not the aim of this particular film. But then, perhaps it should have been. Focussing on the sickening ways in which slaves were transported is an easy way to get an emotional response, but it strips the film of its contemporary relevance. The experiences of modern day slaves may be (very) slightly less horrific, but nevertheless, they deserve their freedom.
One of the challenges of reviewing a film such as this is separating out the story from the way it is told. As it should be, Amazing Grace is inspiring, challenging and emotionally moving, but is that because of the talent of those who made the film or in spite of it? The strongest aspects of the film are the sets, the costumes, and, crucially, Ioan Gruffudd's turn as Wilberforce. He gets the balance right between steely resolve and compassion whilst also occasionally making time to look overwhelmed by his task. As one would expect from this cast, there are a number of other impressive performances who, in general, make the most of the spirited dialogue.
On the down side, having come up with the idea of naming the film after a famous hymn, director Michael Apted seems unsure how best to use it. It appears three times in the film, yet on the first two occasions it's almost embarrassingly dull and uninspiring. When Wilberforce interrupts a parliamentary social room sing-song to force Newton's hymn upon them, I found myself wanting them to start up again to drown him out.
Another weakness it the portrayal of William Pitt. Presumably part of the reason Pitt became Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister was because he had a brilliant political mind. Here though, he shows little intelligence or leadership other than his initial plan to get into office.
These points aside, Amazing Grace is a competent telling of an incredible tale. Whilst there may be many other films this year that will be better crafted, few will have such an inspiring story to tell.
Posted by: Matt Page on Thursday Mar 29th, 2007
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