Recent Historical Films

 

 

Amazing Grace (M. Apted, 2007)
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

Directed by Michael Apted; written by Steven Knight; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Rick Shaine; music by David Arnold; produced by Edward R. Pressman, Terrence Malick, Patricia Heaton, David Hunt and Ken Wales; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions. Running time: 120 minutes.

WITH: Ioan Gruffudd (William Wilberforce), Romola Garai (Barbara Spooner), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt), Albert Finney (John Newton), Michael Gambon (Lord Fox), Rufus Sewell (Thomas Clarkson), Youssou N’Dour (Oloudah Equiano), Ciaran Hinds (Lord Tarleton) and Toby Jones (Duke of Clarence).

 

 

Synopsis

Ioan Gruffudd plays Wilberforce, who, as a Member of Parliament, navigated the world of 18th Century backroom politics to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Albert Finney plays John Newton, a confidante of Wilberforce who inspires him to pursue a life of service to humanity. Benedict Cumberbatch is William Pitt the Younger, England's youngest ever Prime Minister at the age of 24, who encourages his friend Wilberforce to take up the fight to outlaw slavery and supports him in his struggles in Parliament.

Elected to the House of Commons at the age of 21, and on his way to a successful political career, Wilberforce, over the course of two decades, took on the English establishment and persuaded those in power to end the inhumane trade of slavery.

Romola Garai plays Barbara Spooner, a beautiful and headstrong young woman who shares Wilberforce's passion for reform, and who becomes his wife after a whirlwind courtship. Youssou N'Dour is Olaudah Equiano. Born in Africa and sent as a slave to the Colonies, Equiano bought his freedom and made his home in London, where he wrote a best-selling account of his life and became a leading figure in the fight to end the slavery of his fellow countrymen.

 

From the Director

"I was very interested in William Pitt and that whole period.  This was a catalyst in the end to the slave trade, to a whole period of reform.  This was the English revolution as opposed to the French or American, which was peacefully executed as it were. [...] I think the key was figuring out how to structure it.  We were sent it as a biopic and it didn’t work at all.  It also tends to be fairly heavily weighted towards the faith part of his life.  But I had always been looking to do a political film, looking for some inspiration out of politics because I kind of get depressed by how contemptible politics has become and how we disregard it. [...] I mean people don’t vote, people seem uninterested in politics, seem, as I say, to have almost a feeling of contempt with politics and politicians and not without reason.  But I don’t think that’s the way to live and so I’ve always been looking for a story which would shine a light on politics and get a sense of some inspiration from it." (Michael Apted).

 

Quotes on the Film

"Moving, visually striking and spiring." (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Time).

"'A sweeping historical epic which tells a story too long forgotten; the birth of freedom, and brings overdue glory to a true hero." (Jeffrey Lyons, NBC's REEL TALK).

"A movie that dazzles the eye, touches the heart, and stirs the soul. Elegantly crafted and superbly well-acted, AMAZING GRACE is a remarkably uplifting, substantive contribution to the popular culture -- and to our crucial understanding of freedom's history." (Michael Medved, National Syndicated Columnist).

 

Press Clippings

 

By Eddie Cockrell

Crisply told and sincerely thesped, "Amazing Grace" is a workmanlike costumer that distills Blighty's long battle for the abolition of slavery and the personalities behind landmark antislavery legislation into a tidy story of conscience and perseverance. The closing night preem at the Toronto fest, pic will go out Stateside Feb., 23, 2007, to mark the bicentennial of the passage of a key bill in the struggle. Biz will be decent but unspectacular, though ancillary could be fuelled by pic's educational value.

In 1797, 34-year-old Evangelical antislavery firebrand William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), consumed by his cause, exhausted by the vicious Parliament in-fighting and wracked by colitis, retires to the country home of his friends Henry and Marianne Thornton (Nicholas Farrell, Sylvestra Le Touzel). While on the mend, he recounts his struggles to admirer Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai).

Cut to eight years prior, when Wilberforce, whom everybody seems to call "Wilbur," is persuaded by close friend and future Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) to introduce legislation to end the slave trade in the British Empire.

Wilberforce, who was only 21 when he was elected to the House of Commons, joins Pitt, who at 24 became the youngest P.M. in Britain's history, to lead a contentious and complex fight for antislavery legislation against chief opponents Lord Tarlton (Ciaran Hinds) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones).

Wilberforce and Pitt are aided by oddball do-gooder Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) and prominent freed slave and author Oloudah Equiano (Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, fine in low-key thesping debut). But, despite their best efforts, Wilberforce's first antislavery bill is defeated by a landslide in 1791, and subsequent annual legislation fares no better.

However, back in 1797, inspired by his growing love for Barbara, Wilberforce once again takes up the antislavery crusade. After much wrangling and skullduggery, a bill is finally passed in 1807 which does not outlaw slavery but makes it illegal for British ships to transport slaves, giving Wilberforce a hard-fought, morally correct victory.

Cautioning at the tail of the closing credit crawl that certain characters and incidents have been combined or invented to move the drama along, pic's convenient tale of good vs. evil nevertheless makes its forceful point that Wilberforce's youthful obsessiveness and unorthodox methods aided tremendously in ending British transport of slaves and accelerating the demise of the slave trade. In fact, the actual Slavery Abolition Act wasn't passed until 1833, a month after Wilberforce's death.

Pic reflects the no-nonsense storytelling skills of prolific helmer Michael Apted, whose career-long mix of feature and docu work holds him in good stead once more. Cast is uniformly fine, with Gruffudd setting the pace via a sincere and well-modulated perf and Hinds appropriately dastardly as the sneering Tarlton.

In the three scenes in which he appears, Albert Finney is mesmerizing as the remorseful former slave trader and Wilberforce adviser John Newton, while Michael Gambon gets the bulk of pic's few lighter lines as Lord Charles Fox, whose dramatic defection to the antislavery movement is seen to break up the logjam within Parliament.

Tech package is pro, with CGI discretely broadening the horizons in certain long shots to cement the period illusion. Closing credits crawl over a bagpipe performance of the cherished title tune, first penned by Newton in the 1770s and lustily sung by Gruffudd at a pivotal point in the proceedings; that segues into "Everyone's Sky," penned and sung by N'Dour and composer David Arnold.

(VARIETY, 15 September 2006)

 

 

By Ty Burr

Amazing Grace's traces unsung hero's fight against slavery

"Amazing Grace" is very much the stolid "great man" bio pic, but you've probably never heard of this particular great man before, and his story's worth the telling. The movie, deeply felt and dutifully inspiring, is also an interesting reminder that England outlawed slavery a half-century before the United States got around to it, and didn't need a civil war to do so. All it took was one extremely stubborn man of conscience.

As played by Ioan Gruffudd, William Wilberforce is the sort of grave, God-fearing young man who annoys everyone else by being both moral and right. We see his concern for whipped carriage horses first, but it's whipped humans who become his life's work. By the late 17th century, there were 11 million Africans in the West Indies , and Great Britain was the superpower of slave traders. The details of the Middle Passage are hideous but business is so good that no one wants to hear them.

Wilberforce forces the issue with canny PR stunts like diverting lords and ladies out for a pleasure cruise into a recovered slave ship. "That smell is the smell of death; breathe it in!" he bellows. He also inveighs against slavery in the House of Commons to peeved, bored peers who have too much invested in the practice. "Doesn't he know the dangers of talking sense in this place? " mutters someone.

It's a doughty movie, stuck halfway between Masterpiece Theatre and Classics Illustrated, but, to his credit, gifted journeyman director Michael Apted understands he's playing the long game. It took decades for the armada of public opinion to shift course, and "Amazing Grace" charts the ups and downs of England and its hero. (He suffered grievously from colitis, we learn.) Political strategy is crucial to all the abolitionists except Wilberforce, who believes right will conquer simply because it's right. Gruffudd makes this naivete endearing rather than obstinate.

Watching the film, you get a sense of Europe turning under the weight of history. At the start, England is about to lose the Revolutionary War; by the end, beheadings in Paris have those across the channel fearfully fingering their collars. One of the scruffier abolitionists (Rufus Sewell) whispers, "What you say about the slave is true of the miner and the farmer," but Wilberforce will have none of such proto-Marxism and sends the man packing. The more conservative members of Parliament are horrified by an anti slavery petition bearing 400,000 names. "That roll of paper reeks of rebellion," squawks one MP. "The people?!" "Amazing Grace" is explicit about charting a middle passage of its own.

Intriguing historical characters keep popping up in the film, played by sharp hams. Toby Jones (the other Capote) makes an epicene Duke of Clarence, the King's son (King George III, you may recall, is off being insane) while Benedict Cumberbatch is a canny, red-haired William Pitt, youthful prime minister and Wilberforce's boyhood friend. Michael Gambon gambols through as Lord Charles Fox, Ciaran Hinds glowers as the villainous Lord Tarleton, and Albert Finney, looking like a hedgehog in a cassock, is John Newton, the slave-trader-turned monk who wrote the title hymn, the abolitionists' fight song. Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour makes an impressive acting debut as Oloudaqh Equiano, the freed slave turned writer who served as Exhibit A against slavery.

There's a love interest, too: Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), a lifelong activist who forms a happy meeting of mind and soul with this man who prefers meeting with God in a field instead of a church. "Amazing Grace" is a period epic and a saint's progress, but mostly it's a debate on the old subject of Christian faith versus Christian works. Not much of a contest, really. The movie soberly testifies to a man who felt that belief without acts is the worst sort of hypocrisy and who kept pushing until the rest of his country gave in.

(Boston.com, 23 February 2007).