Thursday, March 08, 2007
"Amazing Grace" - Movie Review
Amazing Grace -- The Movie A Review
I grew up with the story of William Wilberforce, the man who led the fight against the Slave Trade in the British Empire. Somehow or other he has always had a place of honor in England, an example of selflessness looked up to as much by non-Christians and Christians alike. Throughout my education he kept reappearing in different guises, but it was not until the late Seventies that I realized just how many fingers he had in many, many pies. Neither did I realize what an influence he had on British culture as well as the future shape of the British Empire, and after the Empire was gone the Commonwealth of Nations.
Given all this history I have with Wilberforce, I wasn't quite sure what to expect when going to see the recently released film of his fight against the slave trade the other evening. Usually I find that movies about people of note, especially Christians, leave something to be desired. But friends I respect had said it was a "Must See" so off we went -- and were not disappointed.
From start to finish I was spellbound. Not only was the movie briliantly executed, but it was about as true to the facts as the cinema can make it. The production tells its story with a mixture of understatement and (sometimes) whimsey that add force and poignancy to what is being said. It would be very easy for a subject like this to get preachy, but Michael Apted's production avoids such heaviness while at the same time not compromising the significance of what was being portrayed.
On the screen we meet William Wilberforce the enthusiastic and sharp-witted young Member of Parliament for Hull in Yorkshire, and we meet this same Wilberforce when worn down by years spent banging his head up against something akin to a brick wall. We see his youthful friend friendship with William Pitt the Younger, the youngest man ever to be Prime Minister, turn sour, renew on the latter's deathbed, and then we are told as the credits roll that they were buried side-by-side in Westminster Abbey.
We see Wilberforce the man of faith, tenacity, and vision, and also Wilberforce battling the laudinum habit that was created by the use of this opiate as a medicine. We are introduced to the beautiful and indomitable Barbara Spooner who, after a whirlwind romance, becomes his wife and partner in causes of which the Anti-Slavery movement was only one championed by these extraordinary 18th and early 19th Century evangelicals.
We are shown Wilberforce in the deepest depression, Wilberforce the man of song, Wilberforce grappling the extent of the evil he was fighting and acting as a general to gather data and finally defeat this evil. What I didn't know but the movie pointed up was that William Wilberforce loved animals and kept a whole menagerie of species in his home, especially a beloved hare. Wikipedia tells me that he was among the founders of what would eventually become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), one of the largest and most influential humane societies in the world today.
Together with people like Hannah More and the other Evangelicals who lived in the Clapham area of South London, William Wilberforce had a profound influence on British society and outward into all the world, a fact only hinted by the movie, but is fully recorded in the multitude of books about the man and his times. My favorite biography of Wilberforce by John Pollock, published in 1979 is, as far as I can see, no longer in print or available.
The endurance and perseverance of these folks should be a model to us today, for despite what were at the beginning insurmountable odds they were prepared to take on an evil and fight it to the end whatever the consequences. The movie does not tell us that Wilberforce used most of his family's financial resources in his fight for good. One of the tragedies of our times is that people of commitment rather than fighting against what they perceive to be evil, after one or two bloody noses step from the ring and walk away. Amazing Grace is a tonic that if taken would seriously stiffen the spine of the faithful.
There are so many fine performances in this movie that it is seems almost unfair to single anyone out -- but the actor who surprised me the most was Albert Finney, who played the priest and hymn-writer John Newton. I have watched Finney in any number of roles throughout his long career, but nothing matches this performance. Tears flowed down my cheeks when his face shone and he said, "I know only two things, that I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior."
It isn't often that you watch a film and the audience is transfixed at the end, but this is what happened in the theatre the other night in Franklin, Tennessee. There was a short round of applause followed by people riveted to their seats as they thought, prayed, and watched the credits go up. Indeed, strangers started talking to one another, sharing their own perception of the last couple of hours or so.
This is a movie that I will buy as a DVD when it is published in that format, and which I will watch again and again. The telling of the story of William Wilberforce ought to rekindle the vision of us all to be willing to surrender everything to change the world in the name of Jesus Christ. It is certainly something to share with young Christians who might be in a position to do in the 21st Century what Wilberforce and his friends did in the Britain of the Georgian and Regency era.
William Wilberforce lived to see the slave trade abolished by Parliament in 1807, but he had to wait until 1833 to see the abolition of slavery and total emancipation in the British Empire -- he was on his deathbed. Parliament ended this mean and wicked trafficking in human souls on July 26, 1833. As news came to his home in Clapham the great Abolitionist said, "Thank God that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery." He died just three days later.