CINEMA: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Triumphing against all the odds - Amazing Grace
, July 21, 2007
William Wilberforce's titanic struggle against the British slave trade is the subject of a new film, Amazing Grace
, reviewed here by John Ballantyne
Are you ever tempted to despair at the state of the world around you? Do you feel the wrong people seem to be in charge, and it's almost futile to continue struggling to make the world a better place?
|Ioan Gruffudd |
as William Wilberforce.
If so, take heart from the career of the anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce (1759-1833), subject of an inspiring new film, with a stellar cast.Amazing Grace
is brought to the silver screen by Walden Media (the people behind The Chronicles of Narnia
films) and directed by Michael Apted (famous for the long-running 7 Up
Wilberforce is played with great passion and vigour by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower
, Fantastic Four
Intensely idealistic, socially popular, gifted with a fine singing voice and with a glittering parliamentary career beckoning, the young Wilberforce is nevertheless tempted to forsake public life on his conversion to Christianity.
However, his friend and contemporary, William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch) - destined to become British Prime Minister at the age of 24 - gently rebukes him.
"Do you intend to use your beautiful voice, Wilberforce, to praise the Lord or to change the world?" he asks. "Surely the principles of Christianity lead to action as well as meditation."
A pivotal influence on the young Wilberforce is his old preacher, John Newton, played with great solemnity by Albert Finney. Newton, a former slave-trader himself, later a convert to Christianity and author of the popular hymn Amazing Grace
, from which the film takes its name, is now old, practically blind and filled with remorse over the deaths of 20,000 slaves on his ships.
He describes how he lives with "the ghosts of 20,000 men". He laments: "I wish I could remember all their names - my 20,000 ghosts."
Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Wilberforce embarks on a long political struggle to free black African slaves.
At his side are the so-called Clapham Sect, a famous body of evangelical Christians from various denominations, united in their passion for social reform - individuals such as Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) and Hannah More (Georgie Glen) - some of the finest names in the roll-call of humanity's benefactors.
After countless setbacks, the political tide finally begins to turn when Wilberforce presents a vast anti-slavery petition to parliament. So lengthy is the list of signatures that the petition is unrolled on the floor of the House of Commons amid protests from pro-slavery MPs.
But the petition is not yet complete: one more person wishes to sign. At this the great political figure, Charles James Fox (Michael Gambon), dramatically rises from his seat and adds his name.
Later in the film, Wilberforce's old friend William Pitt the Younger, his health broken after long years of leading Britain during its wars with France, lies on his death-bed. Earlier in the film, Pitt had been the one to inspire Wilberforce to pursue his life's mission. Now Pitt himself craves reassurance about the hereafter.
"I'm scared, Wilberforce," says Pitt. "I wish I had your faith."
Wilberforce lived to see his cause vindicated. Eighteen years after he first took up the cause, the Commons voted, on February 23, 1807, by 283 to 16 to abolish the slave trade.
Here the producers of Amazing Grace
take an historical liberty when they have Charles James Fox deliver a speech praising Wilberforce. (In fact, Fox died five months before this historic vote).
The speech is in fact a paraphrase of one delivered on that occasion by Wilberforce's friend, the Solicitor-General Sir Samuel Romilly. Regardless of who uttered them, the words are particularly apt for the dramatic purposes of the film.
Fox is made to say: "When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon - men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men.
"But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who's achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. And yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war.
"William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more."
Amen to that.
The film finishes with a rousing rendition of "Amazing Grace", performed by massed bands of Scottish pipers outside Westminster Abbey where Wilberforce lies buried next to his friend Pitt.
Wilberforce's life and career, fittingly commemorated in this magnificent film, remind us that, no matter the frustrations and setbacks we may suffer in pursuing good, we should never lose heart.- film reviewed by John Ballantyne. Amazing Grace opens in Australian cinemas on July 26.
See also John Ballantyne's feature, "Wilberforce's epic battle to end slavery", News Weekly
, May 12, 2007.