February 24, 2007

Movie Review: Amazing Grace

We're in the middle of the biggest snowstorm of the year, perhaps of the last few years, but I wanted to make sure I saw the film Amazing Grace as soon as it opened in our area. I had heard almost nothing about the movie before its opening last night, except that it purported to tell the true story of hymn that I love. I had some familiarity with the story of how the song came to be written and thought it would make a grand story for the screen.

However, I was wrong -- about the plot of the film. The genesis of the song is mostly ignored for the more gripping story of the man who fought slavery in Great Britain over the long course of his life, and if anything, this seems more fitting than my original notion. The film succeeds in combining faith, history, politics, and biography into a compelling narrative that surpassed my expectations.

William Wilberforce fought slavery as a Member of Parliament for most of his public life. He and his friend, the young William Pitt, tried to stop the slave trade as a means to choking off the entire institution. Called seditionists and worse, the entrenched interests of the slavers fought Wilberforce for years, but could not quell his desire to put an end to the trade. It took more than twenty years for Wilberforce to finally beat the slavers, and he died 28 years later as Parliament finally emancipated the slaves of the British empire.

Ioan Gruffudd plays Wilberforce with the earnestness that he brought to the Horatio Hornblower series. In some respects, Gruffudd overacts just a bit, but the part requires his energy to keep viewers engaged. His passion ignites the screen, and one can overlook the few times he seems to be trying a little too hard. Others in the cast give impressive performances, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as Pitt. Cumberbatch has only a four-year filmography, but plays Pitt in his younger and older incarnations brilliantly. Michael Gambon takes a break from his Harry Potter duties to play Lord Charles Fox as a daunting and somewhat mischievous politician, whose support makes the difference over the long haul. Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds distinguish themselves as supporters of the slave trade who gradually lose to the determination and tenacity of Wilberforce and the inevitable shame that slavery brings upon the British.

But by far the most moving and unforgettable performance is given by the amazing Albert Finney as John Newton, the man who wrote the song. Soul-sick over his participation in the slave trade, Newton turned to God and became a minister after writing perhaps the most well-known hymn in history. The movie catches Newton in his later years, as old age gradually turned him blind and his passion for the abolitionist cause came to the fore. Finney makes the most of the part, expressing a self-loathing and a burden of guilt so tangible, viewers can almost hold it in their hands. His anger and frustration matches Wilberforce's, but Finney projects it onto both characters with such force that it wrenches the heart.

And the heart is where this film lives. The ghastly subject pulls us into late 18th century politics, where the revolutions in America and France has poisoned the atmosphere for dissent, and also awakened the truth that Africans are just as human as Europeans. Amazing Grace as a hymn tells about how one man went from blindness to sight, and Amazing Grace as a film tells how the British made the same journey. It will inspire audiences with this journey, and people of faith will understand how Wilberforce could have persevered for so long against interests so entrenched that they relied on the crown for their support.

Without a doubt, go see this movie. Albert Finney's performance alone is worth the price of the ticket, but there is much, much more to Amazing Grace than just the lyricist.

Addendum: I was struck after the film at how the British managed to end slavery without falling into a civil war, although the film hints at such an outcome along the way. Unfortunately, we did not follow the same path as the British, to our shame and to our detriment, and the effects have lasted for more than half the life of this nation.


TrackBack URL for this entry: