Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films, PG rating
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that John Newton's hymn "Amazing Grace" has always had a grip on my heartstrings. Just last month, during a time when I was dealing with some difficult family matters, we began singing its tremendous words as the closing hymn in church on Sunday morning. I only made it halfway through the second verse before tears were becoming noticeable, and I bolted for the side door before the choir had processed.
I had mixed feelings about the film Amazing Grace. It was powerful, inspiring, and important—but it was also, at times, confusing and incomplete. The narrative jumps around chronologically, from 1797, as words on the screen tell you, to "fifteen years earlier," and then suddenly to "the present day" whatever that means in a film such as this one.
The story begins with its protagonist William Wilberforce fighting what appears to be one of those mysterious nervous illnesses (that occur in Henry James novels and Sherlock Holmes mysteries) as a result of having spent the last fifteen years in Parliament struggling to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire. We see plenty of beautiful, period scenes of British high society. There are plumes in ladies' hats and men wearing wigs. It rains, and rains, and rains.
Then, the story takes you back in time to the beginning of Wilberforce's fight. He is a committed abolitionist with very little support in either the House of Commons or in British society. The charismatic young man's first act for the cause is both political and spiritual: remembering his singing days at Cambridge, he decides to stand on a table outside the House of Commons and sing for his fellow Members of Parliament (MPs) the hymn written by his old preacher, John Newton. Soon afterwards, we discover that Wilberforce has found God—"Or, I think that he found me"—he tells his butler. "Will you use your voice to praise the Lord, or, to change the world?" one of his fellow MPs challenges him. Everyone, it seems, wants the charismatic young Wilberforce to remain in politics.
There is little subtlety to the spiritual questioning of Wilberforce. We see him struggle to come to terms with how he can serve both God and his nation. We see him lie in wet grass and gather improbable animals as house pets, loving their creation. But aside from such simple gestures, we are not made to understand anything about spiritual doubt or struggle. We also never hear the theological arguments for or against slavery, which proliferated in England during the abolitionist movement.
The only hint in this direction comes when the MP from Liverpool, played convincingly by Ciaran Hinds (who I last saw as King Herod in The Nativity Story), shouts: "We actually have no evidence that the Africans themselves have any objections to the trade!" Finally someone on screen explains to Wilberforce something many of the Christians in the audience were probably hard-pressed not to scream out in clarification: that Christian meditation and action can be one.
At about this time in the film, an attractive young woman is introduced into the story. "Of course!" my thirteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, said afterwards. "There just had to be a gorgeous love-interest for Wilberforce! How else would the movie company sell the story!" Sarah was right. We are made to believe that Wilberforce's courtship of his wife was somehow central to the story, which in reality, it was not. The two of them share many of the same opinions, as we see almost too easily as she ticks off the topics on which they agree (education, abolition, animal rights). "She came across as a silly liberal who didn't really know what she was talking about," my daughter said. Clearly, this love story sub-text was mostly a means to create opportunities for showing a buxom, red-haired young lady desiring to be close to the handsome young abolitionist.
Two actors shone most brightly in the film: Rufus Sewell as Thomas Clarkson (although the viewer is never told a thing about who Clarkson was, and how he came to be a leader in the abolitionist movement). In 1999, I saw Sewell as MacBeth in London, and his dark, brooding eyes were unforgettable then, as now.
Plus, every moment with Albert Finney (as slave-ship-captain-turned-hymnwriter John Newton) is memorable. Unfortunately only two scenes feature Finney, both times when Wilberforce returns to his old church in the village of Olney to visit his former pastor. In the first, Newton is dressed as a monk, washing the floors of the church, still in penance for what he did as a slave ship captain years earlier. "I live in the company of 20,000 ghosts," he tells his young protégé, referring to the Africans he transported and tortured in route to Jamaica over the course of two decades. Wilberforce asks for advice on how to persevere in the fight in Parliament, to which Newton responds, "God sometimes does his work with gentle drizzle, not a bolt of lightning."
In the second scene with Newton, the old man has gone blind and Wilberforce finds him dictating his confession/memoirs. Newton summarizes his life with the following simple declaration, which received audible "Amens" from members of the audience in my theater: "All that I know is I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior."
Amazing grace, indeed.
I recommend the film to everyone, with one caveat: Read about the story of Wilberforce and Newton before you go. There are terrific resources at the film's W eb site, including a study guide (designed for social studies middle school-age kids), a faith guide (designed for church groups), sheet music for the great hymn, and information about what still needs to be done to end all slavery, today. With some information in hand and head, you will avoid some of the more confusing elements of the sequencing of events, and you will come away with much to ponder about that critical period in history, as well as its parallels to our own.
Copyright @ 2007 Jon M. Sweeney