AMAZING GRACE is an unabashedly sentimental film and this is as it should be. It recounts the 15-year struggle of William Wilberforce to end the slave trade in the Britsh Empire at the end of the 18th century. Wilberforce and his followers were driven by sentiment, coupled with principle, to take on the big business interests of the day who saw the slave trade as a means of profit. While Steven Knight’s script abounds in sentiment, he leavens the material with perfectly gauged dashes of humor that are in keeping with the keen wit of both varieties to be found in the protagonists. This is an intelligent film about serious thinkers and their ideas, and it’s director Michael Apted’s spare, incisive vison that prevents the film from becoming either cloying or maudlin, though the screen is painted with emotion.
Wilberforce’s character is brought home in the first five minutes. Riding through a pouring rainstorm in the countryside, he stops to berate two teamsters who are beating their exhausted horse. Despite being ill, despite being a stranger, he through the force of sheer will and conviction gets their attention. That one of them reconizes the man speaking to them in calm tones as the man who has spent most of his adult life trying to abolish slavery, as well as institute other changes to better society and uplift the underclass, bespeaks the fame Wilberforce had in his own time among even the probably illterate. The scene is also important in setting the stage for the world as it was in 18th-century England, a place of squalor, class distinctions, and casual cruelty that were seen to be the proper order of the world, not something that needed changing. It brings into sharper focus just how unusual Wilberforce was, but also the hurdles he had to overcome. Ioan Gruffud gets to his essence: a strident idealist, but not naive, a man who is outspoken, driven, and not to be taken lightly.
For the first two-thirds of the film, the action shifts between that time and fifteen years earlier when Wilberforce and his friend and co-abolitionist William Pitt (Benedict Cumerbatch), shortly to be England’s youngest Prime Minister ever, start their campaign. In the later time, Wilberforce is a man broken in health and spirit. Addicted to laudunum to seek relief from his colitis, he is also haunted by his failure. It is during a conversation with the lovely young woman (Romola Garai), thrown in his way by concerned friends who think he should marry for his health if for no other reason, that he recounts how he decided between the ministry and the good fight in Parliament. Reinvigorated, the rest of the film details the often disconcerting struggle to continue the fight.
There is nothing that brings history alive quite like having events correlate to the present. In a story rich in details, from the coffin-sized berth in which slaves were confined during the brutal journey across the Middle Passage, to a round of antique golf, it is the political wranging that is the most vivid and most engrossing. A debate in Parliament in which Wilberforce is established as a powerful and persuasive speaker with a quick mind and a quicker jab, ribald and other, includes arguments pro and con over continuing the war in America that have a startlingly contemporary ring with the use of such words as “appeasement”. The arguments in favor of keeping the slave trade do, too, but not for anything having to do with human rights, but rather with profit. There is something jarring in the way politics can be made to serve self-interest and the profit margin, specifically the way big money gets its way without even trying to be subtle. Machinations, dirty tricks, and a whispering campaign greet Wilberforce’s efforts even as he turns public opinion in his favor by cajoling, bullying, and appealing to people’s basic sense of decency. When Pitt, now Prime Minister, warns him that continuing to speak out against a practice that, while evil, fills the coffers public and private will result in charges of sedition and treason, it is a psychic jolt.
The cast is the best British sterling and all of them at the top of their game, particularly Rufus Sewell as an inconclastic preacher who is a mix of wry intellect, flyaway hair, and cranky impatience to change the world; a garrolous and guilt-ridden Albert Finney as John Newton, the ex-slave trader and Wilberforce’s mentor who was the composer of the eponymous hymn; Michael Gambon as dour Lord Fox effortlessly mixing a keen understanding of realpolitik and the sudden urge to do the right thing; Toby Jones as a bite-sized pug-dog of a dissolute prince; and Youssou N’Dour in a stunning film debut as Equiano, the freed slave whose melancholy dignity is at the center of the film.
AMAZING GRACE is a bracing experience, examining the best and worst of humanity while keeping the same sense of clear-eyed optimism that drove those dedicated to the cause. A celebration and a revelation, it’s as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.