Amazing Grace (another in a series of random film reviews)

As we reported a few weeks back on this very blog, Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, the man deemed instrumental in the abolition of slavery. It received pretty lacklustre reviews so when I went to see it last night with a group of us from Museum Studies I was not expecting very much. However I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did enjoy it. Opinion on the film was split amongst us incidentally, which was not surprising because I felt that the film was quite subtle in its approach. And that subtlety meant that much of the film's subtext could easily be overlooked.

For me, this film was clearly a study of Wilberforce rather than the abolition of slavery per se. The huge cast of characters were therefore incidental to him (played ably, if rather flatly, by Ioan Gruffudd) and I found myself wanting to go and read up on all the fascinating characters we are briefly introduced to. As with all period dramas it was difficult to establish who everyone was as they all looked very similar in their wigs, so it was a relief to see that the 'abolitionists' were more quirky in their appearance, for example Thomas Clarkson played by Rufus Sewell looked like a drowned rat for most of the film until he sensibly chopped off his greasy, lank locks off to appear more respectable for Parliament. They also counted women and a former slave, Oloudaqh Equiano, played with great dignity by singer Youssou N'Dour (chiefly remembered for his song '7 seconds' with Neneh Cherry) amongst their numbers, in stark contrast to Parliament who were chiefly, um, men in powdered wigs, and lots of them. I felt that very few of the actors were chosen for their looks, which makes a change surely in this day and age. However... Ioan Gruffudd was clearly more attractive than Wilberforce in reality despite their best attempts to make him look haggard. And his love interest, Barbara (Romola Garai) came across so smug and pompous in her embracing of political activism that how the love between them developed was completely lost on me.

With the focus on Wilberforce and his struggle to come to terms with his need to fight for good causes at the same time as desiring a quieter life of contemplation, you would have thought the film would enable you to really understand his motivation. However this was the weakest part of the film for me. I never felt that I truly understood why he was so devoted to ending the slave trade and why he was so passionate. This was possibly because we were introduced to him when he had lost his 'faith' or because the acting was not as convincing as it could be. Even so, I liked the contrast between Wilberforce and his friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) who was to become Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister. The latter motivated by power, so much that he was prepared to silence his friend to retain his support from the King, and the former motivated by... well it was supposed to be a higher calling I suppose but again the weakness of the film in explaining Wilberforce's motives makes this rather flat.

I suppose we need to see Wilberforce in the context of his times. For me the 18th century was an amazing period. One of manners and fine clothes and achingly boring social conventions and mores... but at the same time one of debauchery, gambling, drug taking, sexual diseases and of course revolutionary ferment. There are any number of amazing characters to step forward from this time including Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, Shelley, Keats... great philosophers, thinkers and poets. Many of them young men of fortune who found that they desired more than the comfortable life that their station in life afforded them and often, proceeded to go on what can only be described as self-destructive benders in the midst of which they attempted to forge either a new life or vision of how they wanted the world to be. Even Wilberforce, son of a wealthy merchant from Hull, was prone to excesses of drinking and gambling until he found his more noble cause to follow. The film was subtle in its portrayal of this aspect of his character; however I liked the way it created the atmosphere of the times without making a huge song and dance about it. The film began with rain, rather than the more usual chintz and prettiness; there was mud and disabled beggars and prostitutes hanging about the streets. Still there were a couple of heaving bosoms and horse riding scenes which no period drama can be without. There were allusions to the war with France, the French Revolution and the threat that the upper classes of society felt as they feared 'sedition' would spread to England. There was the war with America. It was a time of ferment and I feel that this was accurately portrayed as being in the background, rather than experienced on a daily basis by any of the characters.

And this is where the greatest strength of the film, conversely, lay for me. It has been criticised for keeping slavery in the background, for not depicting it. But this was how Wilberforce experienced it. He was fighting for a cause which he had knowledge of through the testimonials of others, through seeing the slave ships and from the evidence collected by his friends. And I feel that most viewers can relate to this immediately. Like slavery in the modern world it is not something we know at first hand. We read about it through newspapers and programmes on TV; this is an issue far from our daily lives. This film reminds us that such horror and injustice still dwells in the background, perhaps unnoticed if not for people like Wilberforce who draw our attention to it. Perhaps some will despise this do-gooding message because it reminds us that a comfortable life often comes at a price. However it fits in with my view of the world - that we can change things if the will to know and to act is there. It also gives hope in the collective will - Wilberforce would not have succeeded if it had not been for the help of his friends and mentors. Of course, there are other issues which spoil this positive, life-affirming message including the cynicism/power of politics which means devious methods must be employed at times to get the message across. It is quite a modern film in that respect... even good men must stoop to devious means to win sometimes.

So overall I felt this film was much better than I had hoped and Wilberforce was not quite the Hollywood stereotype of the 'great man' which I had feared. They did not quite convince me why he was so devoted to the cause but it left me with a desire to find out more about him and maybe explore that for myself.


Amy said…
Great review, as ever Ceri. :) I agree with everything you say, and am a little ashamed about how sniffy I was about the film before I saw it. I stand corrected. I guess the problems I identified before were primarily as a result of the cheesy marketing, rather than the film. Interesting that you pick up on the lack of background for Wilberforce's activism. Was he genuinely moved by the plight of slaves, or was he just on the look out for a 'cause'? It wasn't clear. Did you get the sense that quite a lot of the film was left on the cutting room floor? There were similar gaps in the narrative, and some scenes that made little sense. Like Clarkson when Wilberforce finds him after resolving to try once more to get the abolition bill passed by Government. Exactly who, and what was the point of the baby?! In retrospect it feels like large parts of the film were missing from the eventual presentation. We can perhaps imagine that much more had been made of the realities of the slave trade - perhaps some footage had been more graphic or disturbing, but didn't - for whatever reason, make the final cut.

Oh, and Pitt died of liver failure in the end (I was right! It was the drink! ;)).
Ceri said…
Yes the Wikipedia entry says Pitt was very fond of port which much have been the reason for the florid cheeks :)

Reading your comments I have to admit that I had not really thought about the gaps in the narrative. It was a lot to get through and yes it did seem disjointed. Thinking about Clarkson and the baby I assumed they were making the point that they had all gone away and found alternative lives away from the 'cause' and were having to be dragged back into it for one last push. Family life is quite often presented in opposition to the life of a politican, as if it gets in the way (or vice versa) so that is the point I felt that they were making. But then I could be wrong and he could have stolen it because he is an evil seditious revolutionary!
Anna said…
Great review Ceri and Amy's point about there being gaps I totally agree! I hadn't really considered it before. It also made me want to know much more about Wilberforce, what was his illness for example? It seemed quite severe at times and then just vanished!
Ceri said…
According to one website he had a 'decay of all the vital functions' which sounds pretty horrendous, but he kept it at bay by taking opium. He died after a severe attack of influenza.
Amy said…
Incidentally, there's a really interesting little article about Clarkson's chest - of the contents of which- that he took with him on all his campaigns and travels, in the back of the month's Museums Journal. It's currently in the Wisbech & Fens Museum.

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