Despite all of its earnestness and good educational intentions, Amazing Grace reminds me of one of those historical movies about an important figure that you were forced to watch in school. It tells you all the information you need to know about the person or famous event in question, but you are bored silly, finding more entertainment drawing elaborate scenes around the baseball player and tennis player on your Pee-Chee instead. (Well, I’m speaking for myself, I suppose.)
Amazing Grace is one such well-intentioned movie that makes you feel guilty for snoozing through it. After all, the story is about one man’s fight to end the British slave trade in the late 18th century (it sure ended up taking Americans a heck of a lot longer). Inarguably noble, that’s for sure.
William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), or “Wilber” to his pals, is a young man in his 20s with youthful passion to match. He and his pal William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) are in the British Parliament, and have plans to change the world. Pitt decides he’s going to make a move to become Prime Minister (which he successfully does, becoming one of the youngest in Britain’s history), while Wilber’s passion is torn between abolishing slavery, and being a man of God. (Wilber’s love of God is portrayed in a cringe-worthy scene that shows him smiling inanely at blades of grass and laying on his back on the lawn of his manor, beaming at the sky in wonder.) But other abolitionists keep pulling Wilberforce back into the fight, because each time there’s a vote, they get ever so closer to victory.
Apparently Wilberforce’s lifetime fight was consolidated in the film, which is surprising, because in the film it seems to be endless. And not only that, but Wilberforce is rather sickly, so you keep expecting him to kick the bucket before victory. His cohorts in the fight include an assortment of colorful characters, like activist Rufus Sewell, in an odd long-hair wig, Michael Gambon, as a powerful Parliament member who is one of the first to side with Wilberforce, and the cartoonish hissingly evil Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones, who are Wilber’s main arch enemies in the government. Oh, and much is made of African singer Youssou N’Dour’s cinematic presence as an actor, but his role as an ex-slave is so small, and his disappearance from the story so unexplained, that he barely makes an impression.
If you are wondering, the title of the film of course comes from the famed hymn. The song was written by an ex-slave trader turned holy man named John Newton (Albert Finney) who was a friend and admired elder of Wilberforce’s. In the film, Newton’s character serves as the Voice of Guilt, as he is a man who peddled in slaves for over 20 years until he quit (“I was blind, but now I see”). Finney, of course, lights up the screen whenever he is there, but the appearance of his character seems only cursory, to introduce someone who can tell horrible stories about the trade, whilst the rest of the characters harumph with political speeches.
Of course the film would not be complete without having a rendition of the song “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. I’ve told friends before, and I’ll tell them again, that “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes is the one tune that can make me burst into tears immediately. So call me a sucker, but there I was, crying over the closing credits, despite the fact that the film itself was tedious. Did I go home and Google more information about William Wilberforce? Yes. His story is truly an interesting and inspirational one, but unfortunately this movie version of his story is not.