SAMUEL GOLDWYN FILMS
Ioan Gruffudd, left, plays William Wilberforce, a rich tradesman's son who is elected to Parliament and tries to abolish the slave trade while in office.
Reviving old notions
"Amazing Grace" is a heartfelt, if at times stodgy, tribute to British abolitionists
At one time, movies were not just considered entertainment. They had the potential to proselytize, to uplift and educate the masses, and so social-minded screenwriters pumped out -- particularly at Warner Bros. -- edgy fare like "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," "Five Star Final" and "Public Enemy." A favored format was the biopic, as the lives of the famous and hardworking were examples to us all: "The Story of Louis Pasteur," "Young Tom Edison," "Abe Lincoln in Illinois."
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We don't see many biopics these days, and virtually none that are uplifting, unless they're about entertainers, because that's an excuse to lard the goings-on with tunes, or because they're object lessons about loved ones becoming werewolves, like "Mommie Dearest" or "Sid and Nancy."
Which means that "Amazing Grace," a heartfelt if occasionally stodgy tribute to the British politicians who abolished the slave trade 200 years ago, feels something like a historical artifact itself. Stepping into the theater is like firing up the Swayback Machine.
Basically, abolitionism is the overweening obsession of William Wilberforce, a rich tradesman's son elected to Parliament at quite a young age in the closing years of the 18th century. Wilberforce, as portrayed here by Ioan Gruffudd, is more in tune with the animals of nature -- mostly cute animals on his sprawling estate -- than with the rough-and-tumble patronage politics of the era, but he has had a kind of religious conversion on the matter. There's a good chap, now, he sets to work, enlisting the aid of his public school friend, William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), already notable as the youngest prime minister ever appointed.
What with the revolutions in the Americas and France and Pitt's patron King George III going squirrelly with a mysterious madness, it's an interesting political time. But alas, many members of Parliament are firmly in the pockets of the slaving packet-knackers, and when money talks, well-meaning legislation walks.
Wilberforce becomes an organizing angel for the nascent abolitionist movement, enlisting the media and building up files, but he keeps introducing his bill to ban the slave trade for naught, for two decades, until a clever lawyer suggests a way to use Parliament's ongoing fixation with Napoleon's French menace as an end run, first driving the slavers out of business so that their payoffs dry up.
The first modern measure outlawing slavery overwhelmingly passed Parliament on Feb. 23, 1807. That's right, 200 years ago this week.
The title comes from the tune written by Anglican clergyman John Newton, a former slaveship owner consumed by guilt over his deeds, and a mentor to young Wilberforce. He's played by Albert Finney as if desperately seeking salvation, and his scenes with Gruffudd have real power. The rest of the movie is a little too "Masterpiece Theatre," but this old-fashioned notion, the idea that a man can seek salvation and higher meaning through a trusting relationship not only with God, but also with his own conscience, deserves our attention these days.