Review: Amazing Grace

The film is proof that liberal filmmakers can make movies that aren’t desperate manifestations of their political guilt.

Amazing Grace
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Fernando Meirelles and Edward Zwick take note: Amazing Grace is proof that liberal filmmakers can make movies that aren’t desperate manifestations of their political guilt. Though he wears his heart on his sleeve, Michael Apted does so without apology, positing William Wilberforce’s attempts to abolish slavery in Britain in the 18th century as a metaphor for the perpetual struggle of liberal humanists to affect change. As a visual storyteller, Apted aspires only to competence, but his pride for the legacy of liberal willpower is stunning. He’s no Terrence Malick, a producer on the film, though he could be our generation’s Peter Glenville, whose Becket comes to mind during scenes that depict Wilberforce’s complex relationship to his friend William Pitt, only without the Glenville film’s overheated homoerotic subtext. As young up-and-coming politicians, the two Williams vow to take over Parliament and avenge the world’s evils, drifting apart after Pitt is made complacent by his position as prime minister. Wilberforce will not renege his liberal dream, though it would appear to make him sick; his body seems to turn against him with every blow dealt to his abolitionist bills by Parliament’s conservative cabal, led by a nasty Lord Tarleton (Ciáran Hinds) and an even nastier Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones). (If their villainy seems over the top, compare their relish for Wilberforce’s defeat to the smugness neocon ghouls like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Anne Coulter demonstrate when they ridicule the handicapped, victims of kidnappings, and the widows of firefighters.) Wilberforce’s spiritual crisis barely registers—certainly not as deeply as Richard Burton’s retreat into his faith in Becket (that film’s most interesting angle)—but Ioan Gruffudd deeply considers his character’s struggle to stay true to his humane instincts, proposing injustice as a soul-rotting disease. Apted may flatter David Arnold’s maudlin score with a sloppy monologue or two, propping Wilberforce up in some scenes as something close to a saint, but an intensely physical Gruffudd resists the director’s campaign for deification, always grounding his character’s turmoil. For those frustrated with our current state of affairs, Amazing Grace inspires us to keep hope alive.

 Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Jeremy Swift, Ciáran Hinds, Toby Jones, Nicholas Farrell, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Stephen Campbell Moore, Bill Paterson, Youssou N'Dour, Albert Finney  Director: Michael Apted  Screenwriter: Steven Knight  Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films  Running Time: 120 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2006  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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