And also with you.
It’s been a few days since I saw Amazing Grace, the new film about William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery in Britain, but with all the post-Oscar craziness (in addition to the actual work I have to do), I haven’t had a chance to blog about it until now.
It’s good. Go see it. Promote it to other folks you know, ‘cause I’m afraid the word isn’t getting out. Plus, there are stupid reviewers out there (Manohla Dargis, my nemesis, that means you!) who are pooh-poohing the film on account of its “strong whiff of piety.” Um, maybe that’s because William Wilberforce was a PIETIST! Look it up, people. That’s what the Internet is for.
Anyway, I thought Amazing Grace did a good job of showing the connection between Wilberforce’s faith and his moral and political convictions, without being preachy. Director Michael Apted is a self-described agnostic, but he clearly viewed religious belief as an important component of Wilberforce’s character. Like Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire’s Scottish runner) before him, Amazing Grace’s Wilberforce struggles with how to best serve God, and he seeks counsel from his childhood pastor, John Newton, the former slave-ship captain whose repentance and conversion led him to write the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
This part of the story, however, is told in flashback. I think one of the strengths of the film is that it places the main narrative during a time when Wilberforce is at his most broken, both in health and in his hopes for ending slavery. His abolition bill has been defeated multiple times, and he suffers greatly from colitis (as well as from the laudanum prescribed for it). He’s certainly not a shiny, happy Christian, and hurrah for that.
But he does love bunnies. Or, more accurately, hares, which occupy armchairs in his chaotic, pet-overrun household (there’s a border collie, too!). Though he may not be “happy,” he has a quirky joy that runs deeper. He struggles with failure and guilt and deep empathy for his suffering fellow human beings, but he’s also a eccentric who wishes he could spend more time contemplating spiderwebs.
Some reviewers have criticized Amazing Grace for being “dull,” and I’m not sure why. I was caught up in the political maneuvering throughout the film. Of course, it helped that some of my favorite British actors (Ciarán Hinds and Rufus Sewell) got in on the legislative battles. But I learned a lot about the reasons for abolition’s delay: besides the more obvious economic reasons, there were fears that abolitionists were somehow undercover populist revolutionaries trying to overthrow the monarchy (given the recent revolutions in America and France). I’d never considered how that played in.
And then there’s Manohla Dargis again, who lambastes Wilberforce for not adhering to contemporary standards of a liberal reformer. She criticizes the film for not dealing with the less appealing causes Wilberforce stood for (she cites the suppression of labor unions—I don’t know anything about this, so I won’t argue one way or another). The question I want to ask is, would the movie have really been better if it had abandoned its focus on the anti-slavery campaign and sought to portray Wilberforce as a muddled man with mixed motives? Amazing Grace shows him in despair, apparently defeated, but it keeps its eyes on what, for Wilberforce, was his driving concern—as great biographical movies from the past have typically done. Mohandas Gandhi was really something of a classist snob, but that doesn’t mean I would want the film Gandhi to have portrayed that. It wasn’t that kind of movie.
Some have called Amazing Grace “hagiographic.” But don’t we need some hagiography? Sometimes Jesus seems far too distant and foreign and we need someone to show us what Jesus “would have done” in a time and place closer to our own. That’s why we have saints. Saints have dysentery. Saints collapse in pain from colitis. Saints give seats of honor to hares. Saints have flaws. But saints change the world. And they change us.
P.S. Other random things I’d like to note about Amazing Grace:
1. William Pitt, Wilberforce’s more pragmatically minded friend and prime minister, is played very well by a young actor named Benedict Cumberbatch. I think that’s one of the best names I’ve ever heard.
2. The movie made me cry. Kind of like that moment when everyone in Middle Earth bows to four little hobbits: I’m a sucker for a hard-won victory at the hands of an unlikely hero.
3. There are bagpipes at the end of the movie, and Porpoise didn’t mind them. This is a day that should go down in history. I think it may be a testimony to the emotional resonance of the film.
2 comments March 2nd, 2007