Amazing Grace

Costume Drama Makes Abolitionist Movement Sexy (Not Really)

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
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Amazing Grace is a spectacularly well-intentioned film. So selfless are its motivations, though, that it threatens on multiple occasions to degenerate from movie to outright moralizing. Fortunately, helmer Michael Apted ( Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough and the Seven Up! series) is on hand to keep things from crossing the line between story and sermon.

The film’s poster (not always the most reliable source, I’ll grant) purports that the film will tell the true story behind the creation of the titular hymn. Viewers, it would seem, are encouraged to imagine some sort of pious version of
Amadeus . This is not the case. Though the popular hymn is mentioned in the film, it was written long before the events portrayed in the narrative and isn’t exactly central to the plot.

Instead, the film concentrates on young English idealist William Wilburforce (Ioan Gruffudd, going a tad more highbrow than
The Fantastic Four ). Wilburforce isn’t exactly a household name here in America. (I’m not sure he is in England, either.) Still, he seems like he was a terribly interesting chap, well worthy of the no-nonsense biopic treatment. As a member of the late 18 th -century Parliament, he championed a great many progressive social causes, founded the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals and was a tireless crusader against slavery. It is this last cause in which Amazing Grace is most interested.

England, you would think, wasn’t all that invested in the slave trade–at least not as heavily as America, which would eventually fight a civil war over the issue. Although England proper saw little of the actual slave trade, a great many of its companies were making heavy profits off the practice in the West Indies. Wilburforce, torn between becoming a priest and continuing to work in government, pushed for years to outlaw slavery. Naturally, he gained a lot of foes in his fight and spent an awful long time with not a lot to show for his stand.

Amazing Grace charts Wilburforce’s seasonal efforts to rally Parliament against the New World slave trade. At first, a seeming force of one, our oratorical hero eventually starts to recruit allies though his deft speeches, his brilliant political maneuvers and by appealing to his fellow man’s better nature. Religious in a rather broad sense, the film seems to believe very strongly in the good will of men. As a period recreation and a rallying cry against slavery, Amazing Grace makes a fairly good companion piece with Steven Spielberg’s Amistad .

Gruffudd is finely cast, and he’s surrounded by other good actors (Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney as allies, Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones as enemies, Romola Garai as love interest). Finney is mesmerizing as a reformed slave ship captain, and Garai is just about ready to start challenging Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts for the plum “attractive actress with accent” roles. The cinematography is lovely and the script is nothing if not sincere. If only the story had a more visceral impact. England really was rather removed from the slave trade. Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour drops by as a former-slave-turned-author who recounts his harrowing history, but the film must rely on speeches, narrative stories and the finer points of Parliamentary procedure to get its message across. It’s a stirring debate, but a fairly academic one.

Sharply told and vividly acted,
Amazing Grace is a workmanlike costume drama that transforms England’s long and contentious battle with abolition into a tidy story about the power of legislation. As an educational piece, the film seems invaluable. As a piece of entertainment, it falls somewhere between classroom lecture and Sunday morning sermon.
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