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Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is an excellent film rendition of the life of William Wilberforce, a member in good and fractious standing of 19th century Parliament, whose best (yet not only) claim to fame is having fought against the slave trade in England for over 30 years. It is not unlike the better offerings from Masterpiece Theatre, but with larger scope and more audacious grit than most.

The horrific torment of slavery is made abundantly clear, yet not belabored to the detriment of the narrative. The point is made and then exploited in a riveting yet not at all sensationalistic manner. It makes the tale exciting without damaging it through needless excess. Each segment appears at just the right point, like pearls being added to a string. The payoff is like a bit of fine brandy at the end of a celebratory meal.

As this is a true story, it is historically thorough, to the extent that even the film's title is clearly explained. The song "Amazing Grace" was written by the minister John Newton (powerfully played by the great Albert Finney), who was pivotal in instilling a moral sense in a younger William. One intriguing component involves the former captain of a slave ship whose remorse over what he had helped to facilitate was so great that he squestered himself in Newton's church for many years, acting as a caretaker and doing penance as he was best able to enact it. He eventually went blind and subsequently felt called to have his experiences written down, his blindness partially releasing his shame, such that he could cope with the admission. His narrative becomes a weapon in Wilberforce's arsenal, as he slowly builds the coalition who help the process along behind the scenes. Although it may be a small bit of artistic license, his understated friendship with Wilberforce is one of the stronger underpinnings of the story.

Throughout, you can feel the anguish of both the slaves and the captain, the moral pain in Wilberforce's drive to undo a massive wrong, the arrogance of his opponents, many of whom have great money at stake in maintaining the trade and the feminine yet resolute fervor his wife employs in supporting his quest. Played with particular panache by Romola Garai, she does not fall prey to the fainting-flower, socialite stereotype, but is instead gratifyingly strong, even noble, in meeting her husband toe-to-toe in several fervent debates. They argue like committed adults and then stand together like quiet heroes. It is an outstanding pairing.

Noted Senegalese singer and percussionist Youssou N'Dour, in a powerful bit of casting, is memorable in a surprising turn as a freeman, a liberated slave who brings the harsh realities home to the growing underground of those who are seeking to overturn the practice. When he drops the typical array of chains and irons on the table with a great clunk and shows the scars on his chest from beatings he received, one can cannot help but be riveted, moved and repulsed simultaneously. It quietly expresses a galling horror with real power.

The entire cast is first-rate and completely convincing, but Ioan Gruffud as the lead is striking. Passionate without being histrionic, you can feel the internal struggle between the moral wrong he seeks to right and the uphill climb against both his sniffing opponents in Parliament and his chronic colitis, which often left him numbed by laudanum.

It is a quietly elegant offering, in that it features well-appointed sets and gratifyingly real, rumpled costumes, as well as the genuine dirt of the era. There is no artifice, nor overblown treatments of any aspect for the sake of flash. With very little cleaning-up, its England as it was then. Particularly impressive is a scene that occurs on the Thames. The array of ships is historically accurate and subtly, visually supports the oppression many of them represent.

The merit of Amazing Grace lies in the simple fact that its screen passion is born of the stage and enacted with the best of what makes the craft endure. It is an outstanding presentation that highlights the crushing depths of fundamental injustices, the pitfalls and rewards of perseverance under great stress and long odds and the luster of a hard-won victory that reaches far beyond its own immediate sphere. It is history and film skillfully blended in the name of several worthy causes. It succeeds beautifully. Highly recommended.

– Review by Hellpope Huey