Directed by Michael Apted
Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Commentary by Jon M. Sweeney
with Sarah Sweeney
the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that John Newton's
hymn "Amazing Grace" has always had a grip on my
heartstrings. Just last month, during a time when I was dealing
with some difficult family matters, we began singing its tremendous
words as the closing hymn in church on Sunday morning. I only
made it halfway through the second verse before tears were
becoming noticeable, and I bolted for the side door before
the choir had processed.
I had mixed feelings about the film Amazing Grace,
which opened in theaters on February 23. It was powerful,
inspiring, and important—but it was also, at times,
confusing and incomplete. The narrative jumps around chronologically,
from 1797, as words on the screen tell you, to "fifteen
years earlier," and then suddenly to "the present
day" whatever that means in a film such as this one.
The story begins with its protagonist William Wilberforce
fighting what appears to be one of those mysterious nervous
illnesses (that occur in Henry James novels and Sherlock Holmes
mysteries) as a result of having spent the last fifteen years
in Parliament struggling to end the slave trade throughout
the British Empire. We see plenty of beautiful, period scenes
of British high society. There are plumes in ladies' hats
and men wearing wigs. It rains, and rains, and rains.
Then, the story takes you back in time to the beginning of
Wilberforce's fight. He is a committed abolitionist with very
little support in either the House of Commons or in British
society. The charismatic young man's first act for the cause
is both political and spiritual: remembering his singing days
at Cambridge, he decides to stand on a table outside the House
of Commons and sing for his fellow Members of Parliament (MPs)
the hymn written by his old preacher, John Newton. Soon afterwards,
we discover that Wilberforce
has found God—"Or, I think that he found me"—he
tells his butler. "Will you use your voice to praise
the Lord, or, to change the world?" one of his fellow
MPs challenges him. Everyone, it seems, wants
the charismatic young Wilberforce to remain in politics.
There is little subtlety to the spiritual questioning of Wilberforce.
We see him struggle to come to terms with how he can serve
both God and his nation. We see him lie in wet grass and gather
improbable animals as house pets, loving their creation. But
aside from such simple gestures, we are not made to understand
anything about spiritual doubt or struggle. We also never
hear the theological arguments for or against slavery, which
proliferated in England during the abolitionist movement.
only hint in this direction comes when the MP from Liverpool,
played convincingly by Ciaran Hinds (who I last saw as King
Herod in The Nativity Story), shouts: "We actually
have no evidence that the Africans themselves have any objections
to the trade!" Finally someone on screen explains to
Wilberforce something many of the Christians in the audience
were probably hard-pressed not to scream out in clarification:
that Christian meditation and action can be one.
At about this time in the film, an attractive young woman
is introduced into the story. "Of course!" my
thirteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, said afterwards. "There
to be a gorgeous love-interest for Wilberforce! How else
would the movie company sell the story!" Sarah was
right. We are made to believe that Wilberforce's courtship
of his wife
was somehow central to the story, which in reality, it was
not. The two of them share many of the same opinions, as
see almost too easily as she ticks off the topics on which
they agree (education, abolition, animal rights). "She
came across as a silly liberal who didn't really know what
she was talking about," my daughter said. Clearly, this
love story sub-text was mostly a means to create opportunities
for showing a buxom, red-haired young lady desiring to be
close to the handsome young abolitionist.
Two actors shone most brightly in the film: Rufus Sewell as
Thomas Clarkson (although the viewer is never told a thing
about who Clarkson was, and how he came to be a leader in
the abolitionist movement). In 1999, I saw Sewell as MacBeth
in London, and his dark, brooding eyes were unforgettable
then, as now.
Plus, every moment with Albert Finney (as slave-ship-captain-turned-hymnwriter
John Newton) is memorable. Unfortunately only two scenes feature
Finney, both times when Wilberforce returns to his old church
in the village of Olney to visit his former pastor. In the
first, Newton is dressed as a monk, washing the floors of
the church, still in penance for what he did as a slave ship
captain years earlier. "I live in the company of 20,000
ghosts," he tells his young protégé, referring
to the Africans he transported and tortured in route to Jamaica
over the course of two decades. Wilberforce asks for advice
on how to persevere in the fight in Parliament, to which Newton
responds, "God sometimes does his work with gentle drizzle,
not a bolt of lightning."
In the second scene with Newton, the old man has gone blind
and Wilberforce finds him dictating his confession/memoirs.
his life with the following simple declaration, which received
audible "Amens" from members of the audience in
my theater: "All that I know is I am a great sinner and
Christ is a great savior."
Amazing grace, indeed.
I recommend the film to everyone, with one caveat: Read about
the story of Wilberforce and Newton before you go. There are
terrific resources at the film's website: www.amazinggracemovie.com
, including a study guide (designed for social studies
middle school-age kids), a faith guide (designed for church
groups), sheet music for the great hymn, and information about
what still needs to be done to end all slavery, today. With
some information in hand and head, you will avoid some of
the more confusing elements of the sequencing of events, and
you will come away with much to ponder about that critical
period in history, as well as its parallels to our own.
@ 2007 Jon M. Sweeney