Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, and
Albert Finney star in a film written by Steven Knight and directed
by Michael Apted
Someday, someone will make a compelling story about the tragic
inhumanity of the slave trade and the dishonor it brought on
presumably civilized societies from an insider’s perspective rather
than the angle of white male policy makers. Amazing Grace,
an instructive film about British abolitionist William Wilberforce,
is not that film, and sometimes tedious to a fault. Too much time
is necessarily spent in Parliament as pompous Englishmen in
powdered wigs duke it out in rhetoric while humanity itself is
being compromised in their name. We want to scream, as enough
people eventually did, to end the barbarity — and this was decades
before America’s own abolition.
Nonetheless, director Michael Apted’s film does a great service
to the tradition of the historical film which fills in a gap of
public knowledge (especially in America, where the name Wilberforce
rings few bells). It also redresses a wound in human history which,
in the grand scheme, wasn’t so long ago. Nor was the impulse of
subjugation and exploitation of labor a dead issue in this century.
If not a great or artful film by any stretch, Amazing
Grace is one of those worthy and virtuous projects, seeking to
illuminate a corner of the human experience.
Apted, famous for his 7 Up! series of documentaries — through 49
Up, so far — was in town recently, as “guest director” at SBIFF,
but his main gift is less as an arthouse director than as a solid
storyteller. The story here is dear to his British and
socio-politically charged heart, a tale about Wilberforce (played
by Ioan Gruffudd), who fought for years in Parliament to awaken
conscience on slavery, and finally prevailed. Passion sneaks in the
side door while politicians are practicing their speechifying.
Youssou N’Dour plays a former slave, with the brand to prove it,
who goes on to write a popular book, which in turn helps shift
public opinion and awareness. Albert Finney stars as the
self-flagellating former slave ship captain John Newton, who penned
the timeless hymn “Amazing Grace” in atonement for his sins. In a
cathartic breakdown scene in a church, the then literally blind
Newton tearfully recounts and recants his past sins, saying, “We
were the apes, they were the humans.”
Alas, Amazing Grace is not a particularly good film,
but it’s definitely good for you.