The title “Amazing Grace” is somewhat misleading, because this is actually a movie about William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, Mr. Fantastic in “The Fantastic Four”) and his struggle to abolish slavery in England. John Newton, the man who wrote the song “Amazing Grace,” was a kind of spiritual mentor to Wilberforce. Albert Finney (“Big Fish”) plays Newton as a man broken and haunted by slavery but who finds redemption as he joins Wilberforce’s fight. Finney only has two scenes in the entire movie, but they are two of the best scenes in “Amazing Grace.”
The movie goes back and forth between Wilberforce as a 21-year-old, when he is just beginning his campaign against slavery, and him 15 years later, when the battle has nearly consumed his life. The 21-year-old is idealistic and full of energy; the older man bitter and resigned, at least until he meets his eventual wife Barbara (Ramola Garai).
Before deciding to devote himself to the slave cause, Wilberforce had visions of joining a monastery or living in solitude. He is challenged, however, to consider the possibility that living for God and being a political activist could be the same thing. Along with his conversations with Newton, Wilberforce is also convinced of the need to fight slavery by Olauda Equiano, a former slave who takes him on a tour of a slave ship. The deplorable, hellish conditions aboard convince Wilberforce to remain in the political arena.
He is attempting to more or less overturn a foundation of Britain’s economy, and the opposition he meets is hardly surprising. Most of the members of the House of Commons, in which Wilberforce argues his case, have investments in companies that use slave labor. As a side note, if Congress here were run more like Parliament is in England, C-Span would have much better ratings.
Eventually, the French Revolution, along with England’s continued trouble with America, lead to Wilberforce being accused of treason. He retreats and loses his voice, literally and figuratively, and has almost given up the fight for good when he meets Barbara, a woman who shares his convictions and reignites his passion. The scenes where they both try to convince one another that they should not marry provide some much needed lightness to the story. To be honest, though, the movie does drag in some places.
The God-talk in “Amazing Grace” feels less forced than in most movies that incorporate faith. Two reasons for this is that writer Steven Knight realizes that praying and thinking about religion can actually be humorous, and because Wilberforce’s faith is so integrated into his campaign for social justice. Think Bono in a powdered wig.
Overall, “Amazing Grace” reminded me more than anything of the second half of Spielberg’s “Amistad,” except that here the abolitionist hero is white here. And while the story does occasionally feel slow and the identities of the different parliament members can be hard to keep straight sometimes, this is a movie well worth seeking out and watching, both as a story of faith and perseverance, and simply as a well-made movie.