In the current American political climate, as much as any other time period or place, it is pretty easy to be cynical. Michael Apted’s latest film “Amazing Grace” – which premiered last Wednesday as the centerpiece showing of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival – pulled off a discussion of turn-of-the-century English politics with only the slightest hint of cynicism. The director openly admitted the film’s all-too-clear theme before its premiere: “If politics is done right, then it benefits all of our lives.”
Blithe idealism is as prevalent in “Amazing Grace” as rainy weather is in London. At first, this quality is quaint and charming, but then it becomes predictable and by the end of the film it’s just plain annoying. The film centers on the issue of slavery in the British Empire, but its real focus is on England’s great abolitionist and statesman William Wilberforce, played by Ioan Gruffaud – pronounced “Eon Griffith.” Most of the story is told in flashback to Wilberforce’s love interest Barbara – played by the very beautiful Romola Garai. His health has deteriorated rapidly because of illness and his endless fight to pass the Anti-Slave Trade Act. Barbara and William find they are both ardent about the same issues and they talk through the night about William’s past tribulations in parliament.
In the good old days, Wilberforce and his friend William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch) were out to change the world as the young, rebellious rock stars of British Parliament – think Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in frock coats. Wilberforce, who loves animals and feels touched by God, considers taking up the cloth, but Pitt the Younger has his eye on becoming Prime Minister and he convinces Wilberforce to come along for the ride.
At some point, the horrors of the slave trade are made apparent to Wilberforce by a group of Quakers and a former slave (Youssou N’Dour). He consults with his other friend John Newton, a priest/reformed slave ship captain played by the adept and very droll Albert Finney. Newton, who also wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” about his guilt over the slave trade, tells him to “Do it, for God’s Sake!”
After this scene, the movie becomes the story of “Wilberforce Goes to the House of Commons,” a classic Hollywood crusade for justice as he dedicates his life to ending slavery in the Empire. Most of the reliable plot twists are there; Wilberforce and Pitt almost break their friendship, all hope is lost until Barbara restores William’s faith and – surprise – they marry, a remarkable legal loophole is found, and Wilberforce even overcomes a laudanum addiction for his unborn son.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this movie is set during times of amazing social and political revolution, and William Wilberforce’s story of conviction is truly inspiring when held up against modern-day punditry, indecision and inaccurate intelligence. He almost single-handedly, not to mention bloodlessly, ended slavery where we Yanks needed a Civil War. The problem is that everything is too perfect.
Wilberforce has the empathy of a saint and even his struggle with laudanum feels conservatively tacked on to improve an already noble character. The film ends up being a predictable fairytale in the aforementioned frock coats, and the formula doesn’t quite work. Ultimately, it’s not a bad movie, but would I recommend that you shell out nine bucks to see something you’ll probably be assigned to watch for your World History class anyways? No, I daresay not.