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Monday, August 27, 2007

Movie Review: Amazing Grace

The film deals with the struggle in England at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th Century to bring an end to the slave trade.

The film centres on William Wilberforce the leader of the anti-slavery movement.

It seems reasonably historically accurate. While watching it I wondered whether Wilberforce was such the fine human being that the film made him out to be. In general the answer is probably that he was in the context of his times and his social class. It is important to remember that the action in the film occurred 200 years ago and that Wilberforce could easily made into a too modern man. Wilberforce was not the modern liberal that we might easily imagine. He was involved in the "Society for the Suppression of Vice" whose concerns included: profanation of the Lord's Day and profane swearing; publication of blasphemous, licentious and obscene books and prints; keeping of disorderly public houses, brothels and gaming houses; illegal lotteries and cruelty to animals. He also supported the suppression of Trade Unions and although he was rightly horrified by the treatment of slaves he was not particularly interested in the lives of poverty and degradation of working people in his own country.

Wilberforce was a fine man, but I don't think he was the saint this movie makes him out to be.

Although Wilberforce always had an interest in religion, this was dramatically quickened by a tour of Europe in 1784. He personally desired to devote his life to God, but was counselled by many people that he could do more good in politics. He eventually made the choice of a political career but fiercely maintained his evangelical beliefs.

The timing of some elements of the film were confusing. The scene in the gambling club is a great piece of film as it dramatically raises the central issues: Wilberforce's religiosity, slavery and the venality of his opponents. The problem that I have with it is that he didn't go to gambling houses after his spiritual awakening, and that it is unlikely that he would sing "Amazing Grace" at the time when he happily participated in the activities of the gambling clubs. The two just don't go together.

The other timing / pacing problem that I have with the film is Wilberforce's romance with Barbara Ann Spooner. The film gave me the impression that there was some time between their first meeting and marriage. In fact they were married less that six weeks after meeting. In the film the first meeting and the marriage are separated by fairly long political flashbacks which disrupts the the presentation of their romance.

Ioan Gruffudd plays the lead role. Although Wilberforce's addiction to Laudnum is detailed, Gruffudd seems too tall and robust to portray Wilberforce. As Boswell (Johnson's biographer) noted after watching a Wilberforce speech: "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."

The film raises some issues that have a contemporary resonance. Wilberforce's opponents don't dispute his description of the miseries and inhumanities of the slave trade, instead they claim that he is economically irresponsible as income from the slave trade is an important part of British prosperity. This of cause is always the response of Conservatives to liberal reforms - "we can't afford it". As well, during the war against revolutionary France, the conservatives attacked abolitionists as unpatriotic. Conservatives in all ages happily play the national security card when their own interests are at stake.

This is a generally well made movie about an important theme.

Rating: 31/2 stars.


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