Amazing Grace Review: A Redeeming Picture, With Mild Shortcomings
by David Hartwell
February 24, 2007
This year marks the 200th Anniversary of the British Parliament passing the act to abolish the slave trade. In response and memoriam of a deplorable past, many have found comfort and fellowship by singing the most famous hymn of the era - Amazing Grace by John Newton. The film by the same name doesn't speak as loudly as the traditional song, but the tune it carries still has the melody of inspiration and heart. Amazing Grace, from well-established director Michael Apted, provides an entertainingly biopic look at a man and era that is unfortunately forgotten.
William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) struggles with two seemingly separated things - his faith and his politics. What does he do? The eighteenth century MP has the human principles and the voice to do great things, but what great things can he do? When he meets with a group of abolitionists, he finds his cause. He's found his answer to his personal debate between theology and politics, and that answer is both. Now William Wilberforce is a full-fledged abolitionist. Through several years of parliamentary proceedings filled with anger and dispute leading to failure, Wilberforce is losing his cause as well as his health. Told partially through flashback, with the narrative eventually catching up to Wilberforce's portrayal, we finally see the struggled man achieve his goal and see the "amazing grace that saved a wretch like me."
The storytelling of the movie outweighs the general quality of picture. Is it moving? Yes. Is it memorable? Mostly. Is it flawless narrative? Of course not. As read in other reviews, the film will most likely find its way into the libraries of most lazy social studies teachers. I couldn't agree more. It has the Gettysburg style, where it's entertaining enough to keep you interested for the full length and historic enough to where you may just learn something. Getting past the style and picture, its most redeeming quality (call it grace) is the message. I was happy that the film took an approach of "let's tell a story that tends to get missed, that honors a noble man, is somewhat historic, and will get people to understand that differences can be made through perseverance" instead of the simpler approach, "slavery is bad."
The weak points may be the film's lack of subtlety and realism. The opening scene depicts the aging, weakened Wilberforce witness the beating of a horse too exhausted to draw a carriage. Wilberforce gets out of his own carriage and explains to the men that beating it wont get the horse to do it's work. Is it a coincidence that this beaten horse was all black? I'd like to think not, mostly because this scene sets up the theme of the picture. Subtlety isn't the method used in this film. The realism dilemma mostly comes from the character portrayals. We have the flawless (except a mild opiate addiction) William Wilberforce set against evil self-agenda ridden members of parliament who seem overly characterized. Not to sound hypocritical, however I don't exactly consider it a bad thing to set good vs. evil in such an obvious manner as long as the story is in the right place, which in the case of Amazing Grace, it is.
I wouldn't expect this film top any award slots, nor to impress the entirety of the movie going public. Based on the crowd at my showing, the films target markets are the senior citizens and families. However, don't feel shy about wanting to see a film that isn't Reno 911!: Miami or The Number 23 this weekend, because from time to time we need something mildly redeeming and inspirational. As John Newton (who makes an appearance in the film by actor Albert Finney) once wrote: "’twas grace that taught my heart to fear. And grace, my fears relieved." This couldn't apply more to William Wilberforce. Leave a comment if you have opinions on the movie or this review.