British schoolchildren probably know the name William Wilberforce better than American adults do (myself included), but the earnest and upright new film “Amazing Grace” suggests we would all do well to remember the fellow. He did, after all, bring about the end of the British slave trade.
England was never a slave-holding nation nearly as much as the United States was, probably due to the fact that England’s class system ensured plenty of people were poor enough to work for near-slave wages without having to make it official. But the empire had a tremendous stake in the overseas trade, shipping slaves from Africa to Jamaica and other British colonies until the early 1800s.
“Amazing Grace” covers two periods of time, commencing in 1797 with Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) in poor health both physically and emotionally. He has just spent the previous 15 years as a member of the House of Commons, trying to get Parliament to end the slave trade. While everyone is sympathetic to the horror stories of slave ships and the treatment of slaves in the West Indies, no one wants to see what will happen to the British economy when slavery is gone. It would ruin the empire, they say, and so Wilberforce has been shouted down every time. He is a defeated man.
We flashback then to 15 years earlier, at the start of his crusade, when Wilberforce has had a religious epiphany and must decide whether he should remain in politics or quit and do the Lord’s work. His friend John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave-trader who is now a repentant monk and the author of the title hymn, helps him realize he can do both. Surely the Lord’s work would include the abolition of slavery. Wilberforce opts to stay in Parliament and try to do some good there.
Written by Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) and directed by the multitalented Michael Apted (“The World Is Not Enough,” the “Up” documentary series, HBO’s “Rome”), this strikes me as an honest, decent film, yet it doesn’t ride merely on its noble intentions. As a period piece, it’s remarkably detailed, smartly written, and likably acted. The jumps back and forth between circa 1785 and circa 1800 aren’t jarring, and it’s nice to see two different eras of Wilberforce’s career dovetailing with one another, all leading to the stirring and satisfying conclusion.
What’s especially notable about the movie is that it’s overtly religious, yet not overbearing or preachy. (I bet I can count the movies I’ve seen that match that description on two hands.) The point is to present a legitimate historical event, and the events portrayed were inextricably connected with religion. There is no agenda here. The film is being marketed to church-going Christians, but by no means is it only for them.
B (1 hr., 51 min.; )