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Michael Apted is a versatile director who has made some very different
films in a number of different genres, including biopics ("Gorillas in
the Mist"), neo-noir ("Gorky Park") and action thrillers ("The World Is
Not Enough"). Some of his films, such as "Nell", resist classification
by genre. With "Amazing Grace" he returns to the "heritage cinema"
genre, having earlier made other period dramas such as "Agatha" and
"Enigma". It is a biography of William Wilberforce, who led the
campaign against the slave trade in Britain in the late 18th and early
19th century. The title refers to the well-known hymn written by John
Newton, another member of the anti-slavery movement. The film is set
during the period between 1782, when Wilberforce presented his first
anti-slavery bill to the House of Commons, and 1807, when legislation
outlawing the slave-trade was finally passed. (Slavery itself, however,
remained legal in British colonies until the 1830s). The film also
deals with Wilberforce's personal life, including his battle against
ill-health and his romance with and eventual marriage to Barbara
Spooner. It went on general release on February 23, 2007, the 200th
anniversary of the date the British parliament voted to pass the Slave
In my view Apted's films vary widely in quality as well as in genre, "Nell" being one of the best films of the last couple of decades and "Enough" one of the worst. "Amazing Grace" is somewhere near the middle of this scale. It is not as good as "Nell" or "Gorillas in the Mist", but far better than the awful "Enough" or the dull "Agatha". It is a handsome, well-made costume drama which gives a good picture of life during the period in which it is set, although there are a few errors. (The Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV), for example, did not sit in the House of Commons (as he is shown doing here), but in the House of Lords). Ioan Gruffudd is excellent in the leading role, as are Albert Finney as Newton, Michael Gambon as Wilberforce's ally, the wily Charles James Fox, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the equally devious Prime Minister William Pitt. Although Pitt is sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause, for political reasons he is unable to attack the trade publicly. (The system of political patronage and rotten boroughs which prevailed at the time meant that many Members of Parliament were in the pockets of those with vested interests in the slave-trade). Pitt therefore uses Wilberforce as his public mouthpiece.
Nevertheless, I felt that the film has something missing. It gives the impression that slavery was something to be discussed in the abstract by a group of well-to-do white politicians sitting in London. There is only one black character in the film, the former slave Olaudah Equiano, and there are no scenes which show the reality of slavery or the slave-trade. There is a brief reference to a slave revolt in Haiti, but this is the only recognition of resistance to slavery among the slaves themselves.
This objection goes further than mere political correctness, which is doubtless how some will dismiss it. It would have made for a better film had it showed not merely the Parliamentary campaign against the evils of slavery but also something to indicate why that campaign needed to be fought. Wilberforce's ally Newton had himself been the captain of a slave ship before he underwent a religious conversion and became an ordained priest in the Anglican Church. As shown in the film, he was to be haunted throughout his long life by guilt over the part he had played in the slave trade. I couldn't help thinking, in fact, that his life might have made the basis of a more dramatic film than Wilberforce's.
Apted said that he did not set out to make another film such as "Amistad" or "Roots". I will not attempt to compare a feature film like "Amazing Grace" with a television series such as "Roots", but I felt that if Apted had indeed set out to make a film more like "Amistad", which deals with both the white abolitionist movement and with the black victims of slavery, the end result might have been better. 7/10
Looks like, according to others, that this film was made in the old
Hollywood tradition of never letting the facts stand in the way of a
good story. No matter, it captures the atmosphere of the struggle in
spirit and if it spurs one to use Google to learn the details properly
so much the better.
The film fails to explain a few details, such as why his proposal was passed nearly unanimously in 1807, nearly passed 20 years earlier - but nothing much in between. Answer - war, or the immediate threat of war, with French resulting in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. The film did explain that any British withdrawal from the trade would just allow the French and others to fill the resulting vacuum. No gain there but after the French and Spanish fleets were destroyed n 1805 there was no chance of any vacuum being created. The potential costs of banning the trade dropped sharply.
Again, the film was a bit vague about distinguishing between abolishing the trans-Atlantic trade in slaves and abolishing slavery itself in the West Indies. That took another generation and another revolution - the railways - to enable that.
The struggle for Parliamentary Reform had been going on just as long. It had been opposed as being a risk too far - look at what happened during the French Revolution. However in 1830 a railway between Manchester and Liverpool was opened. A few months later a riot broke out near the line in Liverpool. Word was passed to an army barracks, also near the line, on the outskirts of Manchester. A train was commandeered, filled with troops and sent rapidly on its way to Liverpool. The troops delivered, riot cleared - all within 2 hours!!! A year earlier it would have taken 2 days!!! With the balance of power shifting so sharply in favour of the forces of order resistance to Parliamentary Reform weakened so much that it was finally achieved by 1832 - and the new Parliament finally voted for the abolition of slavery itself in 1833 (although it took a few years to be fully rolled out). Cause and effect.
(Trivia: The Duke of Clarence depicted in the film had his mistress housed in the same road that Boris Karloff was born. Is that why so many cinematic liberties were taken with his character?)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Some movies have a message and some movies are a message. Amazing Grace
is one of the latter, but almost completely avoids the unflattering
earnestness that usually sinks such films.
The story is about William Wilberforce, one of those people who are incredibly significant in world history but are forgotten because their accomplishments have come to be taken for granted. Wilberforce, well portrayed in the film by Ioan Gruffud, was the politician who led the fight against British participation in the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th century and is largely credited with the eventual success of that campaign.
The movie switches back and forth in Wilberforce's life, from when he was a young man newly embracing the Christian faith and debating whether to pursue a life of meditation or a life of politics to when he was a sickly, middle aged man weighed down by years of failure in the fight against slavery. Wilberforce is portrayed as a reluctant political warrior, first persuaded to take up the anti-slavery cause by his friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), who would go on to become Prime Minister, and later urged to rejoin the fight by his eventual wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). But the person to whom Wilberforce turns for advice in both cases in his old preacher John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave ship captain terribly haunted by his sinful participation in that evil business and the man who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.
The most interesting thing about this movie is that it puts the slave trade in a different light. Most of the brutality of slavery is kept off screen and only talked about by the characters. Instead of trying to inflame your emotions, it puts you in the same place as William Wilberforce, considering slavery from a moral and spiritual perspective. By reducing slavery to a political issue of debate and public policy, you can more clearly understand the obstacles faced by the abolitionists. The violent evil of slavery can blind you to the economic reality that it was an important element in the global business of the British Empire. Amazing Grace makes you understand that the defenders and tolerators of slavery weren't necessarily in favor of it but they were concerned or afraid of the economic risk of doing without it.
The biggest handicap the movie has to deal with is that British abolitionism was purely a political battle that took place over years and wasn't achieved by some dramatic, high stakes battle but by years of persistent effort and a little trickery to change the economic equation that propped by the slave trade. Britain did not have a civil war around slavery and while the movie works hard to try and build up the drama, it's almost impossible to make heated conversation and political strategizing as compelling as armies battling in the field.
This is one of the more practically educational films you'll see. It doesn't bombard you with dates and such, but it shows you how the American Revolution and the French Revolution were both connected and how they were wrapped up in the arguments over the slave trade. It is also one of the best fictional demonstrations of how politics really works, how the public mood can shift from support to opposition and back and how skilled politicians can rig things to stifle their opponents.
Amazing Grace is a film about the evils of slavery and struggle to eliminate them, but it never reduces that struggle to a fable. It grounds it very much in the real world and by removing some of the heat, lets a little more light shine on the people and the circumstances that triumphed over such a terrible injustice.
The inspiring story of how one man's passion and perseverance changed the world. Based on the true life story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a leader of the British abolition movement, the film chronicles his epic struggle to pass a law to end the slave trade in the late 18th century. Along the way, Wilberforce meets intense opposition from members of Parliament who feel the slave trade is tied to the stability of the British Empire. Several friends, including Wilberforce's minister, John Newton (Albert Finney), a reformed slave ship captain who penned the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, urge him to see the cause through. Amazing Grace 7/10
William Wilburforce was a man with a clear vision that did not allow anything to get in the way of creating his dream. He enrolled others, kept apprised of useful information, overcame nay-sayers and personal setbacks, and became a true hero - without shedding a drop of blood. I just watched this movie with my family again - probably the tenth time - and it is still fresh, moving and inspiring. The acting is superb, the subtlety of the various subplots is delicious, and the cast is extraordinary. Nobody pushes this historical picture into ridiculous surreality. Bravo, bravo, bravo - and my thanks to all involved. I give it a 10 out of 10.
I must admit that I had a little problems watching this film because I
have no background knowledge on how the British Parliament works in
that time and I hadn't known anything about Wilberforce before I watch
it. So it makes me slow in catching up with the story. The flash-back
technique makes it a bit confusing too.
This is not a "fun" movie. It's something serious, like a few pages from the history book. However, the story itself has something to say and it's very valuable. I wasn't entertained by the film but I learned from it.
What I learn was: if God gives you a destiny or calls you to do something, he won't let you rest until you go out there and do it. All the events in your life will point toward that thing. There will be guiding light in your dark hours. There will be support and encouragement when you feel so low. Everything will tell you...this is the way that is meant for you.
What matters most about this film is that it's based on true story, real history. There was really this man who dared to stand up for the right thing. This man who cared about other human on Earth and fight to set the slaves free. It's quite an inspiration in itself already.
There is no doubt that the Brits love a good period drama, either on a
big or small screen. There seems to be a regular flow of costume dramas
that enthrall audiences while they're on but fade from memory the
second the next one comes along. So if you're a fan of Jane Austin or
are waiting for your latest fix of Charlotte Bronte to come along,
might I suggest that you turn your attention to this curiously
over-looked film which not only has all the attention to detail you'd
expect from such a production but also benefits from being a true story
instead of the bodice-ripper you may be used to.
Mr Fantastic himself Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberforce, a young and committed Christian MP in the early days of the 19th century. Striving to end the slave trade on which the British Empire reaped such rewards at the time, Wilberforce finds little sympathy in Parliament for his ideas but he is not without some allies. His good friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) must balance support for Wilberforce against his ambitions to be Prime Minister while like-minded preacher Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) and his colleague, former slave Olaudah Equiano (singer Youssou N'Dour) find their reputations being tarnished as the country moves closer to war with France. But as the strain begins to show and his health begins to fade, what will it take to change a nation without risking it all?
I'm not hugely familiar with the story of Wilberforce although I was aware that this film marked the 200th anniversary of these events. What I am aware of is that this is a fine example (another fine example) is the British coming up trumps with this type of film. It looks the absolute business and the film is certainly to be commended on that. Acting is also very good - Gruffudd is superb as Wilberforce and Cumberbatch is equally impressive alongside a stellar cast. However, I did feel that the dialogue felt a little clunky at times as though they were frightened of sounding authentic. I understand that the director, veteran Michael Apted, wanted the film to be accessible but it just felt a bit history-lite. I have also since learnt that the film contains numerous historical inaccuracies but seeing as Hollywood plays fast and loose with the truth on a regular basis, I wouldn't hold that against this film.
While not what you would call entertaining, "Amazing Grace" offers plenty of inspiration and provides an uplifting message about never giving up on your beliefs. I am all for portraying stories like this in a way that reaches as many people as possible and while I confess that the film did not initially grab my interest, it quickly became apparent that this film is more than just a puffed-up luvvie exercise. The sad thing, for me, is that while the slave trade was eventually abolished, slavery itself is very much alive and kicking - I wonder how many of you are sat there in your Nike trainers or drinking coffee that isn't Fairtrade. "Amzing Grace" is a film about Wilberforce's life but the story of Wilberforce's work has not quite finished yet.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Amazing Grace is the story of British abolitionist William Wilberforce
and his struggle to end slavery in Great Brittan. The film follows him
through his struggles and joys as he fights what appears a first to be
a losing battle, but in the end, wins.
The Good: The overall message of the film is about fighting for something bigger and more important than ourselves. At the beginning of the film, Wilberforce is striving to be a politician, but his friends are all trying to get him to take on the issue of slavery. After becoming a Christian, Wilberforce does tackle the issue, and continues to fight for the abolition of slavery year after year, through defeat after defeat. The film is an excellent example of persevering through seeming overwhelming odds to, in the end, achieve a noble victory.
Also, I think it is worth noting that technically speaking, this film was excellent. The amount of detail taken in choosing and decorating the sets was incredible! While BBC didn't (to my knowledge) have anything to do with this film, I came away with the same sort of feeling I get after watching one of their more recent films - "Wow, why haven't we independent Christian filmmakers done so well?" The Bad: There wasn't a whole lot in the film that was offensive. John Newton was not portrayed very accurately (though besides that, the film was surprisingly historically accurate), and there where several instances of language, and a few scenes which included a low cut dress or two, but that was about all.
There are however, some scenes which would only be appropriate for mature audiences. The evils of the slave trade are discussed several times, and the characters use some rather vivid descriptions, which, while not inappropriate, are probably not suitable for young ears.
Conclusion: I enjoyed this film, and would probably recommend it to mature audiences who where aware of the few problems this film contains. It is an excellent example of perseverance.
Great story, melodramatically told.
The politics didn't ring true to me at all: Why would Pitt care that much about bringing Wilberforce onto his team? Would any MP, e.g., Wilberforce and the other abolitionists, count on the "integrity" of other MPs to sway their vote? The supposed parliamentary debates seemed unreal (there was no parliamentary procedure) and not even particularly intelligent or compelling. For example: The abolitionists never even address the questions raised by Dundee and others about the effect on the nation and the claim that the French would immediately fill the void. Another was Wilberforce's "evidence that the Africans themselves opposed slavery" -- a petition by English people supporting abolition.
Another shortcoming: They didn't include a particularly good version of the title song.
This film is about a man's incredible compassion and perseverance to
endure a long fight to abolish the slave trade back in 1800's.
The slave trade is a matter that still evokes shame, guilt and sympathy even today. In "Amazing Grace", the long battle to end the darkest pages of history is re-enacted. Despite the slow pacing, the lack of thrills and climaxes, "Amazing Grace" is a strong, touching and powerful film. It is beautifully shot, the sets are well decorated, and the characters are impressively portrayed. I was very drawn to the cause of Wilberforce, and I deeply admire his selfless dedication towards making the world a better place. "Amazing Grace" is a truly exceptional movie that gives humanity a breath of life.
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