Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace


Reviewed by: Chris

Commemorating the abolition of slavery (roughly 200 years ago) seems a suitable reason to make a movie, but how to go about such an awesome task? Visceral examination of horror? Detailed historical lesson? Director Michael Apted (probably best known for Gorillas In The Mist) has opted for classic style, following the fortunes of inspired young parliamentarian William Wilberforce and fellow abolitionists in a well-made mainstream film. Eschewing a more analytical or left-wing approach, he has probably made the right decision.

As credits open, an MP stops his carriage on a wet and windswept road to stop commoners severely beating a horse. Wilber's kindness is not just to animals (including a pet hare) but to the poor and needy, whom he often invites for breakfast and lunch - much to the exasperation of his cook. But Wilber is torn between politics and church. His mentors persuade him that he can do most good - particularly in the fight against slavery - if he enters government.

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Wilber's best friend is William Pitt the Younger, soon to become Prime Minister. But many of the MPs - not to mention the Crown - have vested interests in the nasty but lucrative slave trade. Slaves are shipped from Africa to plantations in America where, undergoing terrible hardships, they work the sugar fields. Many of them die in transit, chained in tiny cupboards onboard.

Wilber's adviser and hero is John Newton (Albert Finney), a clergyman who used to be a slave trader until he repented of his ways. John has also authored the eponymous song, which we are treated to at regular intervals. Wilber, something of a committed bachelor, is also to meet the delectable Barbara - and we kind of guess that, for all their protestations, there can only be one conclusion there. After all, we're told: "A single man will wither away in rooms that smell of feet and armpits."

The plot is driven through the surprisingly colourful halls of Westminster, with two burning questions: 'When will Wilber get slavery abolished?' and 'When will Wilber get Barbara?'

Amazing Grace is a big glossy period piece, meaning you are carried along seamlessly by a story and don't ask questions - which usually means it's all the more important to ask them. Wilber is the all-good hero, asserting moral righteousness in a moral vacuum, and will eventually get the girl as well as triumph on behalf of civilisation. Generic films like this are the most subtle at reinforcing traditional values, because we accept the message without thinking about it.

On the 'message' front, apart from 'slavery is wrong', we have Wilber inspired by God, frequently in the form of uncontroversial spider webs and other aspects of nature. This tends to make us think that religion per se is good, when in fact the Church of England has publicly apologised for its involvement in the slave trade, saying the Church was: "At the heart of it." It now accepts that its Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned Codrington Plantation in Barbados, where slaves had the word 'society' branded on their backs with a red-hot iron. When emancipation took place in 1833, compensation was paid not to the slaves but to their owners - the Bishop of Exeter and three colleagues, for instance, being paid nearly £13,000 in compensation for 665 slaves.

Marriage is also held up as one of the 'given' goodnesses, when in fact it is one of the principle mechanisms used in countries where slavery still goes on and, in this form, girls are sold off and married against their will even before their teens.

Many historical details go unchallenged, specifically how slavery was abolished, which is dealt with in a very simplistic and not entirely accurate manner. The idea that slavery is something solely inflicted by white men on black men, women and children is not questioned - something that is still a source of sadness to black Americans tracing their ancestors in Africa, only to find that Africans were willing accomplices.

So can a relatively sugary film about such devastation of human life be justified? Eighty-five thousand Africans a year crossed the Atlantic to work on plantations that made Europe rich. Should a more careful portrait have been painted? Oscar-nominated cinematographer Remi Adefarasin envelops us in a lush, reassuring panoramic of politics and country houses, served up in good-enough-to-touch sets and artistically-lit woodlands - not a trace of brutalised slaves anywhere.

Costumes by Oscar-winning Jenny Beavan (Gosford Park) re-create the period in all its finery, rarely stepping outside the delicately quiffed locks of the upper classes. Oscar-nominated writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) keeps things moving briskly even within a script of an almost unbearably high moral tone. On one level, this is the world that Wilber has to convince. And there is another reason, and one which, to my mind, justifies many of thefilm's apparent shortcomings.

Emancipation from slavery is a subject that needs to be a part of our national and international consciousness at every level. Every adult. Every schoolchild. A more graphic story would not have gained the 'PG' rating that will enable both adults and children to enjoy this movie. An intellectual examination would have alienated mass audiences. A 'worthy' docudrama would not have got people out of their houses. This is one example where classical filmmaking is surely justified. (The official website comes with educational downloads and links to charities where you can take action against slavery today.)

Amazing Grace is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over its own follies. The techniques used by its protagonists will be inspiring to other rights groups campaigning for change. The story is a little predictable in outcome and the moral magnificence of the main characters a bit overdone, but it utilises all the expertise of modern mainstream cinema to make its point in a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable way. Amazing it is not, but only the cynical will refuse to grant it the grace it deserves.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2007
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A dramatic look at the legal and cultural processes which led to the abolition of slavery.
Amazon link

Director: Michael Apted

Writer: Steven Knight

Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Romola Garai, Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N'Dour

Year: 2006

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, US


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