It's been so emblemized and overused that it's practically a cliché. The minute its familiar strains fall upon the ear, certain stereotypical emotions well up inside. We think of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised, the flawed and faithless finally seeing the error of their non-enlightened ways. Other images waft up. The Antebellum South with its still struggling perception of prejudice and devastation also offers its memory cues. The devout country singer, the Christian evangelist, the inward glancing rocker - all these and more make the tune part of their own personal testament. Yet few, if any, are aware of the song's original source. While it's doubtful if their impression of its power would change, knowing the link to England's appalling slave trade, and one man's obsession to end same, might raise a few otherwise uninformed eyebrows. Thanks to the talents of filmmaker Michael Apted, the true story of Amazing Grace becomes an equally iconic statement on man's inhumanity to man - and an individual's struggle to eradicate it forever.
As young men of privilege in 18th Century England, William Wilberforce and his best friend William Pitt are anxious to seize power. They are sick of the old guard - Lords and Dukes who determine policy based solely on how it affects their bankbook. The main issue driving the men is abolition. Both despise slavery, but if Pitt wants to be Prime Minister, he must avoid any controversy. Hoping that his friend Wilberforce will take up the cause, the cunning politician invites a group of like-minded radicals over for dinner. Among their number is an ex-slave turned activist. Once Wilberforce hears his horrific stories of death and disease, he sees the light. Seeking advice on how to proceed, our hero returns to old friend, ex-slave ship captain, clergyman and composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace", John Newton. All he can offer is a simple sentiment - fight. That's exactly what Wilberforce does, and over the next two decades, he suffers numerous defeats at the hands of the power hungry and greedy Parliament. Looking for an ally among the sitting stalwarts, he gets Sir John Fox to support his cause. Yet even that's not enough to win the body over - and neither are nearly 400,000 signatures from the British populace proper. It seems like, if Wilberforce and his group will ever win, they will need some of the salvation Newton outlined in his now classic song to guide them to victory.
Amazing Grace is something akin to a cinematic miracle. It takes three stories that few people would be initially intrigued by - the life of British abolitionist William Wilberforce, the movement by 18th century activists to undermine the UK slave trade, and the legacy and legitimizing of the now overblown title hymn - and meshes them into a seamless exploration of human duty and the suffrage of the spirit. English documentarian Michael Apted, best known for the stunning social commentaries known as The Up Series, takes the historical facts of Wilberforce's life, the truth behind "Grace's" creation, and the tumultuous political times driven by youthful Prime Minster William Pitt and layers them one on top of the other, creating a brilliant overview of how land, connections, and title established much of the world's suffering. The plight of the Africans, illustrated expertly by supporting player Youssou n'Dour, is never marginalized or excused. While this is yet another people of color concern played out by way too many white men in badly powdered wigs, Apted never looses sight of the more important prize. He wants to prove that one of the most atrocious acts ever committed by man against another had very little to do with moral stance, and everything to do with wealth, power and abject greed. Prejudice was indeed a part of the dynamic, but a silly sense of entitlement, and the profits that came with it, played a major role as well.
Casting the Fantastic Four's Ioad Gruffudd as Wilberforce was a smart move. Since he's more or less unknown to American's unless he's standing next to Jessica Alba looking perplexed, he's allowed to get lost in the role, returning to his native accent and delivering a finely nuanced, incredibly heartfelt performance. Wilberforce was riddled with colitis for most of his life, and Grufford never lets us forget about the British philanthropist's suffering. Even in happier times, the viewer gets the distinct impression that our hero could keel over at any moment (and he frequently does). But there's another level to Grufford's performance, something we don't usually see in such politically oriented films. Wilberforce is committed to his cause, and we can literally read that dedication across every facet of the actor's face. He never lets us forget he's 100% behind the abolition of slavery - no ifs, ands, or buts. Supplemented by superb turns from Rufus Sewell, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, and Albert Finney, there is never a mislaid moment here. Amazing Grace crackles with the kind of artistic chops that provide untold emotional pleasures. Even in the most villainous 'us vs. them' moments, the cast creates intrigue and insight.
But Apted is also to be singled out for doing the often tricky period piece proud. Instead of going with rank authenticity, or a look that purposefully rejects the signs of the times, he combines stunning locales, gorgeous countrysides, CGI harbors, and golden dream sequences to give us the ethereal feel of England circa 1782. Thanks to Steven Knight's expert script (he was responsible for the Oscar nominated Dirty Pretty Things and David Cronenberg's brilliant Eastern Promises) which drops in little hints about the events transpiring at the time (the Revolutionary War in the US, the revolution in France), and the use of standing structures, we feel transported back in time. And with performances that never slip in contemporary mannerisms or slang, there is a real atmospheric impact. As for the song, some will feel a little let down that we don't get more mythos. We learn very distinctly that former slave ship captain turned clergyman John Newton created the lyrics as a reflection of his devastating days in the human trade, and the melody was more than likely lifted from an Old Scottish tune. Those who mistake the song as a Southern spiritual will be flabbergasted to learn of its Caucasian creation. Thankfully, none of this minutia overpowers what is, in essence, a gripping and powerful anti-slavery statement. Grace isn't the only thing that's amazing about this film. Everything Apted attempts he delivers.
Offered by Fox in one of those highly annoying "Screener Only" review presentations (meaning we get the floating corporate logo intermittently in the corners of the screen) the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen looks exceptional. Apted's eye and the visual splendor devised to recreate the era come across wonderfully. The colors are correct and the details discernible. Hopefully, these fine technical specs carry over to the final product.
On the sound side, Amazing Grace is offered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound mix that maximizes the score by David Arnold (Casino Royale, Hot Fuzz) while keeping the dialogue easily understood. There is very little ambience in the overall presentation, meaning that unless we are seated in Parliament listening to the various voices bounce around the speakers, the multichannel element is not fully exploited.
As for added content, Fox finds a way to deliver some intriguing supplements. One of the best is the full length audio commentary with director Apted and actor Gruffod. Pointing out that the movie wouldn't have been made without Reed Richard's blockbuster status, the pair goes on to praise Albert Finney, discuss Wilberforce's private life, and generally add backstory to the situations we see onscreen. It's a great alternative narrative. Similarly intriguing is a behind the scenes documentary (25 min) that outlines the factual foundations used in the making of the movie. There are star interviews, scholarly opinions, and technical summaries. The rest of the bonus features have a more indirect connection to the Wilberforce story. We get a tour of the Underground Railroad Museum (a 7 min EPK), a performance of the title song by Chris Tomlin, a list of the partners who helped make the film possible, and Interactive Discussion Tools, Studies Guides and Clips. In fact, it's safe to say that 50% of the material offered is standard DVD packaging, The other half is oriented toward teaching and the classroom experience.
Inspiring, intriguing, and ultimately endearing, Amazing Grace is one of 2006/2007's forgotten gems. Apated's approach to this material should be studied by anyone who wants to create a heartfelt historical document without once falling into the cloying or non-authentic traps of the period piece. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, those with a thirst for perspective, not only on the slave trade itself but the powers who pulled the chains behind the scenes, will find no better example of such misguided cruelty. Guided by the celebrated spiritual and almost effortless in its storytelling skill, this is a fine motion picture. It argues not only for the artform's aesthetic joys, but its more thought provoking and considerate elements as well.
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