Reviewed by Steve Sailer in The American Conservative
March 26, 2007
Since 1991, conservative film critic Michael Medved has been pointing out that R-rated films do worse at the box office on average than family fare, but
Billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, a devout Presbyterian, has been placing large bets on the family-oriented film business recently, hitting it big with "Ray" and huge with "The Chronicles of Narnia." Anschutz's latest, "Amazing Grace," the biopic of the amiably saintly William Wilberforce, the evangelical Anglican Member of Parliament who battled for two decades to abolish the slave trade before finally succeeding two centuries ago in 1807, won't match their returns, but it's a worthy and intelligent (if not quite exceptional) effort.
It features a fine cast of British stage actors, including such high class hams as Albert Finney as Wilberforce's religious mentor John Newton, Michael Gambon as his Whig Parliamentary ally, the old sinner Charles James Fox, and Ciaran Hinds as Lord Tarleton, chief bribe-dispenser for the slave interests. Unfortunately, the three look rather alike, especially when wearing powdered wigs, exacerbating the difficulty of deciphering the subtle political maneuvering.
The budget for "Amazing Grace" was limited enough that not much of the horror of the slave trade could be shown. Instead, we watch Wilberforce talking about it, eloquently, with the abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and Oloudaqh Equiano, the Nigerian-born ex-slave who published a bestselling autobiography in 1789.
The film's historical accuracy is above average. One forgivable slip is that while Newton, a former slave trader who repented, did indeed pen the great hymn's words -- "I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see" -- his verses weren't joined to the current melody of "Amazing Grace" until 1832.
Also understandable is casting handsome Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd ("Fantastic Four") as Wilberforce, although he was actually only 5'-3" due to curvature of the spine, and almost blind to boot. Still, Gruffudd's looks sap the romantic tension, just as casting the exquisite Keira Knightley as the sensible Elizabeth Bennett in the most recent version of "Pride and Prejudice" undermined that famous story. "Amazing Grace" is organized around the night the 20-year-old Titian-haired beauty Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) fell in love with the 37-year-old Wilberforce as he told her the story of the political struggle in which he'd ruined his health. On-screen, though, it seems inevitable that they'll marry, since they are the two most beautiful people in
Unfortunately, complex historical stories like this are better suited to the leisurely pace of the television mini-series because a two-hour film has to leave out much. For instance, "Amazing Grace" fails to mention that Wilberforce was a Tory or that his religious enthusiasm was quite unfashionable during the deistic Enlightenment.
Moreover, banning the slave trade in 1807 made the abolition of slavery in the
Contemporary audiences so lack historical knowledge that veteran director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter") and writer Steven Knight decided that there's no point in even trying to make clear who is whom in the film. For the first hour, for example, no effort is made to explain who Wilberforce's best friend Billie (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is, or why in the world Billie thinks (correctly) that he can become Prime Minister at age 24. He's just some guy named Billie who is Prime Minister for two decades. Explaining that Billie's father, William Pitt the Elder, had been the dynamic war leader during the Seven Years War would only annoy the public, so why bother?
The Cheap Labor Lobby that plagued Wilberforce has hardly vanished. The government of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. possession in the Pacific, paid disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff $9 million to persuade former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay not to let the House crack down on its guest worker program under which tens of thousands of Asian women were imported to toil in sweatshops within barbed wire enclosures. Some who became pregnant were forced to have abortions by their employers. Others were assigned to bordellos.
Now, the Bush Administration wants to create new guest worker programs for the American mainland.
But where is our Wilberforce?
Rated PG for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language.