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:: Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace, the latest cinematic offering from director Michael Apted, is based on the life of William Wilberforce, an 18th century English politician, who spent the better part of his days tirelessly campaigning against the African slave trade.

Wilberforce, played by Ioan Gruffudd (Hornblower & The Fantastic Four) and his closest friend, William Pitt, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (soon to be seen in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel ‘Atonement’) enter politics very smart, very young and extremely confident. After a number of years and yet still in their early 20’s, Wilberforce has tired of the game and starts to dream of entering the priesthood. Pitt however, who at the age of 24 goes on to become England’s youngest ever Prime Minister, has other plans for Wilberforce. Pitt introduces him to a group of underground anti slavery campaigners, who manage to convince Wilberforce that his calling is not to the church but is instead to remain in politics and to turn the public’s attention from fighting Napoleonic France, to their own track record on the issue of equality. The issue was not new to Wilberforce whose childhood hero was John Newton (Albert Finney), a reformed slave ship captain who after becoming a minister penned the words for the hymn from which the film takes its title.

Wilberforce, with the philosophical although not vocal support of Pitt in Parliament, then almost single-handedly takes on the English political establishment, the majority of whom have financial interests in maintaining the trade in African men, women and children to the Americas, as it was then known. Wilberforce’s unwavering drive falters only long enough to meet Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, also about to star in Atonement, alongside Cumberbatch) twenty years his junior whose strength of belief in him and the cause itself, renews his desire for campaigning, among other things.

Apted is one of the most experienced directors working in Hollywood today. President of the Directors Guild of America, he started directing features back in the 70’s in addition to being responsible for some of the better known mainstream feature documentaries, such as 7 Up. Whilst he has done his fair share of Hollywood mediocrity, his films have been repeatedly and deservedly nominated for Academy Awards, including ‘The Coal Miners Daughter’ with Sissy Spacek back in 1980, ‘Nell’ with Jodie Foster in 1994, but more significantly given the subject matter of ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ with Sigourney Weaver in 1988.

‘Amazing Grace’ is Apted’s first collaboration with screenwriter Steven Knight whose other feature credit, ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ starring ‘Amelie’s’ Audrey Tatou, was a gritty yet quite beautiful film of 2002. Knight, despite having co-created ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire’, is not a total stranger to political screenwriting. ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ was set in modern day London amidst the lives of just a handful of the city’s illegal immigrants who despite their thousands in number, remain for the most part invisible to the general population and also managed to tackle an issue rarely seen in mainstream cinema, of the trade in human body parts.

Maybe it is the fact that unlike ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ or ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, ‘Amazing Grace’ is not set in the modern day and is essentially a period drama, or maybe its because instead of putting the audience in a position where we get our hands dirty, ‘Amazing Grace’ is predominantly set in the House of Commons, it lacks the political punch of the other two films. Whilst the banter may be more witty and intelligent than watching your average day of Howard and Rudd slugging it out, that may be less the result of clever scriptwriting and more an indicator of how juvenile current Australian politics is. For me, at least, the film just made me lament how far intelligent political debate has receded rather than progressed and also how much more there is to be done in the fight for equality in the world today, rather than marvelling at the life of the clearly inspirational person that Wilberforce was. African men, women and children may no longer being shipped to the deep American south to work in coffee plantations but they certainly are working for various incarnations of ‘the man’ in coffee plantations all over Africa as I write.

For a film about the slave trade, the audience is left with a paucity of images of the trade itself. Even when they are flashed before us for a meagre few seconds, they are more akin to clichéd dream sequences full of wild eyes and fire than what I can only begin to imagine the torturous reality to have been. Hardly cinematically satisfying for an audience who has grown up on a diet of cultural realism alongside the modern media. The film too, whilst setting up the dichotomy of the day to day niceties of Wilberforce’s privileged life as against the subject matter of his life’s work, it fails to create an impression that Wilberforce felt that contradiction himself. Whilst being moved by his commitment to the cause and his apparent psychological haunting of the ghosts of the trade, by characterising the effect of his work on his own well-being, as merely a slightly dishevelled appearance, a predilection for lying on wet lawns and having an addiction to opiates, you never really feel Wilberforce suffered for it, despite what the reality may actually have been.

Having said all of that, ‘Amazing Grace’ still works within the realm of a light hearted period drama rather than a serious political biography. Just don’t expect another ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, as this is both Apted and Wright pulling their punches.