Reviewer: Charity Bishop
In the lockbox of history are men whose names are sometimes forgotten or overlooked in the wake of more impressive achievements, but one of the greatest humanitarians and Christians of his age was William Wilberforce, who called for the abolition of slavery in England after the American Revolution. His cause, though supported by the masses, was again and again turned down in the House of Commons, but throughout he never lost hope that this was what God had called him to do.
Revealing the story through a blend of his older and younger years, the film opens in the late afternoon on a muddied road, where a man is flogging a fallen horse. Along comes a carriage and a man stumbles out into the downpour, commanding that they let the animal be. This ashen, sickness-prone figure is none other than Parliamentary member, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), on his way into the country to wait out his illness in the company of his cousins. While recuperating at their manor, they attempt to romantically interest him in the beautiful and sharp-witted Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). Passionate about many of his causes, and a supporter of his achievements since a very young age, Barbara encourages him to share his frustrations with her.
Fifteen years earlier, having come back to God after a brief time astray, William was driven to join the clergy, but his dear friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) persuaded him that he might do more for the common good in Parliament. Backed in his quest to abolish slavery by the rogue Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), former slave turned writer Oloudaqh Equiano (Youssou N'Dour), and his mentor Reverend John Newton (Albert Finney), time and again William attempts to turn the tide in their favor in the highest court in the land. But voices of opposition are many, and their strengths are few, even when joined by the powerful influence of Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon). For a historical film I was surprised how much information was given about the characters within the context of the plot, but it never slowed the pace or gave the illusion that it was attempting to educate its audience. It is both a lesson in the trials and suffering of one of the greatest men of that era, and a subtle reminder of the fact that doing right and good is never easy.
William was scorned, laughed at, persecuted, but never allowed them to overcome his desire for freedom, or his faith in what he was called to do. I think that it says something powerful, not only about our reason for existence, but to remind us that the road to victory is never without suffering. I think most people would be incapable not to walk out of Amazing Grace reeling from its profound messages. You grow to love and respect the men and women on the screen, as much as you admire their courage and conviction. The film was backed by major Christian groups and to be honest, this is the kind of film I thought we should see more of, rather than the usual standard fare of end times thrillers. The faith found in its beautiful script is remarkable, full of so much passion that it helps us to understand what true belief actually is. William does everything based around his faith in God. He is shown not in prayer, but "talking" to his Maker as though they are old friends, but also with a reverent awe that is inspiring. In one very early scene he says he has been overcome with God, and wants nothing more than to lie in the garden and marvel at His creations. Several poignant scenes find John Newton making profound statements about Christ, as well as revealing the sorrow he lives with based on his former evil deeds.
Most audiences can handle the content, which is primarily thematic elements and a handful of mild profanities. The term a** is used several times, as is "bloody," and "hell," both as a curse and in the spiritual sense. William has nightmares about the abuse of slaves, and at times often graphic depictions of death, abuse, and filth are talked about in order to drive home just how horrible slavery truly is to stunned onlookers. We see the cramped conditions of slave ships, and iron shackles hanging over the railing. For anyone old enough to understand, and truly grasp of the concept of what an important time this was in history, Amazing Grace will be an unforgettable experience. It is the only time I have ever heard the ending credits roll and complete silence from the audience. That, in of itself, is remarkable.