I don’t think there’s another hymn that’s as ubiquitous as “Amazing Grace.” Everyone sings it, tons of musicians have covered it (here’s one), and pretty much no one has a problem with it, whether they’re Christian or not.
What people might not know, though, is that the song was once the anthem of the abolition movement in Great Britain. Written by John Newton, a former slave trader who came to Christ, “Amazing Grace” was frequently sung with gusto by members of the movement, including one William Wilberforce, whose story is told in the 2006 film, Amazing Grace.
The movie opens in 1797, when an ill Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud) is on his way to stay at his friend and co-worker, Henry’s (Nicholas Farrell) house, presumably to get well. Henry and his wife, Marianne (Sylvestra Le Touzel)’s method of treatment involves laudanum, opium and a failed setup with one of Marianne’s friends, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). The opium and laudanum don’t do much except cause hallucinations, but they allow Wilberforce some measure of relief. The setup might have been a bust, but the book isn’t closed on William and Barbara yet.
Then the movie jumps back to 1782, when Wilberforce is advocating in the House of Commons that England should withdraw from the Revolutionary War and let the colonists have America. His arguments are airtight and no one can touch him, not even the imperious Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon). Wilberforce is a respected raconteur and skilled singer, which makes him a hit everywhere he goes.
One night during a game of poker, Wilberforce, or “Wilber,” as he’s known to his friends, is repulsed when the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones) adds one of his slaves to the pot. Wilber walks out in a huff. His friend, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds him and convinces him to go back in, where the assembled crowd of august gentlemen are giving out on some drinking song.
Pitt hops up on a table, bellows for quiet, then gets it after he breaks a glass. Peace won, Wilber hops up on his own table and belts out “Amazing Grace.” The Duke chuckles at first, but then sobers up as he sees how the men are moved by Wilber’s display.
Wilber is now a devout Christian and all in for the cause of abolition. His friends are supportive, but Pitt has some questions: Is Wilber going to use his voice to praise God or change the world?
How about both? Wilber keeps company with key figures of the movement, including Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), Hannah More (Georgia Glen), and former slave, Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), but it’s a tricky situation. Many people are in favor of slavery, and the few who aren’t are afraid to speak up. Everyone talks about how abolishing the slave trade will be bad for business because slaves are used in the sugar and gold industries. Slaves who are bought from European markets are considered “liberated” because the conditions for slaves in Europe are so bad.
Ergo, Wilber and his new friends have to win people over, and they try some pretty sneaky things to get it. Like inviting a lot of rich people out for a pleasure cruise on the Thames, plying them with rich cuisine and chamber music, until they finally pull up alongside a slave ship, where Wilber is there to greet them and invite them to breathe in the smell of death. After that, the cause of abolition spreads rapidly, but the fight is not over.
There’s not much guess where this movie ends. On July 26, 1833 Parliament passed the Slave Abolition Act and never looked back. Three days later, William Wilberforce, whose health had been failing for some time, died at the age of seventy-three. The movie inaccurately shows Wilberforce sitting in Parliament when England formally abolished the slave trade; he had actually resigned from Parliament eight years previously.
Amazing Grace is a compelling movie. It’s got an incredible cast; Ioan Gruffud is a particular highlight for me because, like Wilberforce, he’s a very competent singer and brought that to the role. I think Gruffud is an underrated actor, to be honest. Anyone who has only seen him in Titanic or Fantastic Four may be pleasantly surprised.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast are slouches, though. Rufus Sewell is an earnest and tortured Thomas Clarkson. Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox brings some elegant levity to the film, as well as strength–Lord Fox was no one to be messed with. Nicholas Farrell, like his character, Montague in Chariots of Fire is a steady and supportive friend, although a bit less retiring. Benedict Cumberbatch is, of course, a terrific William Pitt; in fact, this may have been one of the first movies I ever saw him in.
I also liked the chemistry between Wilberforce and Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner; the dynamic is a mix of support and challenge without cattiness or meanness. Barbara Spooner was twenty-six when she met Wilberforce, who was thirty-eight at the time, and Wilberforce proposed to her eight days later. Amazing Grace makes Barbara out to be more interested in politics than she actually was, but the film needed exposition, and shows Wilberforce visiting with Barbara by the fire.
The fireside chat, though, is probably one of the film’s only real weak spots. I think it should have been woven throughout the movie and maybe prefaced a little better, but instead, it’s as if all of a sudden we’re back in the present day and…hello, Barbara Spooner. It would have made for a more cohesive story structure.
The other weak spot is the film’s portrayal of John Newton. Some sources have falsely and snarkily claimed that Newton was still a slave trader at the time Wilberforce joined the abolitionist cause. He wasn’t; he was a respected evangelist who encouraged Wilberforce to keep up the fight. The one thing the film got wrong, though, is showing Newton in sackcloth–there’s actually no record of him dressing like that. Still, Albert Finney, who plays Newton, puts in a wonderful performance.
Amazing Grace has garnered mixed-to-positive reviews, although the public seems to like it more than the critics do. It might have a few structure issues, but overall, the film is an important one about a great man supported and matched by other great men and women, punctuated by a song that never fails to hit home.
Another post is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all…
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