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Should I Watch..? 'Amazing Grace' (2006)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online for over fifteen years.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Amazing Grace is a historical biography film released in 2006 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom. The film is based on the life of politician and campaigner William WIlberforce who found himself against constant opposition and corruption in Parliament in his quest to abolish the slave trade. It also illustrates the experiences of John Newton, a crewman aboard a slave ship and his subsequent conversion to a clergyman. Newton's hymn, Amazing Grace, gives the film its title. Directed by Michael Apted and written by Steven Knight (the creator of hit TV series Peaky Blinders), the film stars Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon and Rufus Sewell. Released to a positive response from critics and earning praise for the cast's performance, the film made a disappointing $32.1 million worldwide. However, the film did bring Cumberbatch wider attention until his breakout appearance as the lead in the acclaimed series Sherlock in 2010.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

While recovering from illness in 1797, William Wilberforce meets his future wife Barbara Spooner and discusses his career up to that point. Becoming an independent member of Parliament (MP) in 1782, the young Wilberforce is drawn to the Church and briefly considers quitting politics to become a clergyman instead. However, he is encouraged to continue in Parliament by his friends William Pitt (a MP himself), Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and former slave Olaudah Equiano. They convince Wilberforce to take on the unpopular task of ending the slave trade in the UK - not easy task considering how lucrative such a business is.

As Pitt eventually becomes Prime Minister, he gives Wilberforce the opportunity to present his bill abolishing the slave trade. Unfortunately, the bill is resoundly defeated after numerous MPs with links to the trade form a coalition against him despite Wilberforce's passionate delivery and some support among other MPs. As the country is drawn into the French Revolutionary War and Pitt's hold on power weakens, Wilberforce is faced with the possibility that his political career may already be in tatters...

Trailer

Main Cast

ActorRole

Ioan Gruffudd

William Wilberforce

Romola Garai

Barbara Spooner

Benedict Cumberbatch

William Pitt the Younger

Albert Finney

John Newton

Michael Gambon

Charles James Fox

Rufus Sewell

Thomas Clarkson

Youssou N'Dour

Olaudah Equiano

Ciaran Hinds

Banastre Tarleton

Toby Jones

William, Duke Of Clarence

Technical Info

DirectorMichael Apted

Screenplay

Steven Knight

Running Time

118 minutes

Release Date (UK)

23rd March, 2007

Rating

PG

Genre

Biography, Drama, History

Gruffudd puts in a passionate and powerful performance as Wilberforce, the man who campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the UK.

Gruffudd puts in a passionate and powerful performance as Wilberforce, the man who campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the UK.

What's to like?

This might be a touch biased considering my locale but I'd argue that few nations can do costume dramas like this as well as the British can. Amazing Grace feels almost uncomfortably realistic at times, from the intricate details of the costumes to the sumptuous country houses and the barbaric conditions of the slave ships themselves. But of course, that is part of the film's agenda - it is designed to wake audiences up to the horrors of slavery and the evils behind it. Knight's script is, for the most part, historically accurate and thanks to the film's heavyweight cast, performances are of a high standard as well.

Gruffudd demonstrates that he is worth another look after the debacle of the Fantastic 4 films which didn't provide him much chance to shine. However, he is upstaged by the always reliable Cumberbatch in one of his early film roles, proving that he would become the star he is today. The pair of them are supported by some of the best British grandees available like Gambon and Finney and they help give the film an added sense of importance. Sadly, the film also takes pains to point out that while slavery was indeed ended (I don't think that counts as a spoiler, do you?), the problem is still very relevant today. Even in the 21st century, millions of people are still illegally enslaved and trafficked across the world including an estimated 5.5 million children.

Fun Facts

  • In the scene where Wilberforce sings 'Amazing Grace', the voice heard singing is Gruffudd's. Unbeknown to most of the cast and crew including Apted, Gruffudd is an experienced choir singer and soloist and he performed it live on-set in front of the cameras.
  • Much of the dialogue used in the scenes set in Parliament is based on actual transcripts of what was spoken at the time.
  • N'Dour makes his feature film debut as Equiano, a former slave taken from what is now Nigeria when he was a child and sent to work in the Caribbean. He eventually bought his freedom in 1768 and went on to write his autobiography while he was based in London as a freedman in 1789. The book itself helped garner support for the abolition of the slave trade but Equiano himself died in 1797, ten years before the bill was passed.

What's not to like?

Unfortunately, the film lacks any sort of dramatic impetus that makes the film compelling. With the ending already common knowledge, the film's narrative is mildly interesting instead of gripping or exciting. The film also makes little attempt to rectify this, seemingly content to remain a slow and ponderous piece with not much to get excited about - unless talented thespians in costume does it for you. The film also suffers from being overly earnest in atmosphere and also fails to properly discuss the racism inherent behind the slave trade, instead presenting the economic reasons as justification. It doesn't quite get the balance right between being an absorbing drama and an overly preachy history lesson.

It's a real pity that Amazing Grace isn't as uplifting as its musical namesake because the intention was clearly to make a film that educates modern viewers about slavery, both in a historical and contemporary context. But the film is just too dull for my tastes - it doesn't do anything extraordinary or unusual so it just feels like the sort of sleepy, Sunday evening drama that your parents are likely to fall asleep in front of. It deserves better, especially these days with the world marching in protest against police brutality chanting "Black lives matter" and the aforementioned problems we still see in the world today. It makes you think and reflect but it doesn't exactly entertain.

Cumberbatch leads a fine supporting cast as William Pitt the Younger alongside the likes of Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Toby Jones and Youssou N'Dour.

Cumberbatch leads a fine supporting cast as William Pitt the Younger alongside the likes of Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Toby Jones and Youssou N'Dour.

Should I watch it?

It won't be everyone's cup of tea but Amazing Grace is an important film and possibly an essential one to show in schools and colleges everywhere to help educate pupils (and possibly even staff) about the mistakes of the past. It's a well produced and expertly performed piece but it just lacks a little dramatic punch to keep viewers engaged. Still, good effort.

Great For: the current climate, educational purposes, maybe inspiring politicians into pursuing more noble pursuits

Not So Great For: racists, fascists, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson

What else should I watch?

For a more moving look at the horrors of slavery, three films instantly came to my mind. The first was Steven Spielberg's Amistad which retold the true story of a rebellion on board a slave ship off the coast of Cuba and the fallout from the mutiny which ultimately led to the American Civil War. The film received comparisons from some to Spielberg's earlier film Schlinder's List although this may a tad unfair on Amistad which failed the match the Oscar success of that film. What was more successful was 12 Years A Slave which won three Oscars including Best Picture, making director Steve McQueen the first black producer to ever win the award. The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, an New York-born African-American freeman who was captured and sold by conman as a slave in Louisiana in 1841.

Lastly, we have Harriet which depicts the life of another abolitionist - American slave and later campaigner, Harriet Tubman. Eventually, she escaped from slavery to Philadelphia where she would lead multiple missions back to Dorchester County, Maryland to rescue her family and other slaves as well. The film might not have garnered as much praise as other films but the story is a fascinating one and I'd argue it's a more interesting watch than Amazing Grace which is positively dry by comparison.

© 2020 Benjamin Cox