"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Amazing "Amazing Grace"

Ioan Gruffudd (c) as William Wilberforce in "Amazing Grace" movieAn early scene in Amazing Grace establishes the film's themes in a way that is more subtle than it may initially seem.

Young William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) confronts a man who is beating an exhausted horse as it lies inert in the mud, in an impossible and heartless attempt to get it to do its appointed work. But it is not simply Wilberforce's compassion that is at work here—that would be an insufferable cliche. Instead of responding to the man's threatening reaction with anger or accusations or pleas for sympathy for the exhausted animal, Wilberforce confronts him with straight facts, pure reason, and an appeal to the man's self-interest: he tells the man that if he lets the horse rest for a half hour or so, it will be ready to carry on.

The man grudgingly realizes the sense in this, and drops his whip into the mud.

This is precisely what Wilberforce would go on to do as a Member of Parliament and the man who led the Empire to abolish slavery. His great cause was to bring to light the facts of slavery and persuade his countrymen to do the right thing.



Amazing Grace is certainly suffused with religion, but it is not a "religious film." Issues and consequences of religious faith appear precisely where they belong in this particular story (and in all observations of human works): at the heart of the characters' motivations. Most of the film deals directly not with religion but with politics. And the treatment of politics is thoroughly intelligent and insightful.


Amazing Grace tells the story of the late-eighteenth century English Member of Parliament William Wilberforce, who as a young man finds his religious conscience so seared by the existence of slavery in his society that he turns away from a career in the religious ministry, which he would greatly prefer to undertake, in favor of a career in politics, where he can manifest his love for God by making the world a better place.

This is both scripturally sound and historically accurate. Wilberforce did indeed help to make the world a much better place.

The film shows the transition from a society in which a small aristocracy ruled without much influence from the general public, to one in which the public's opinion mattered immensely. This is a manifestation of the world-changing effects of Protestantism, and Amazing Grace shows that relationship by depicting the central place of Wilberforce's evangelical zeal in motivating his entirely quixotic ambition to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

It is quixotic because slavery is so ingrained into the British economy that almost everyone has an interest in keeping it going. Hence, at first there is overwhemling opposition to Wilberforce's ambitious proposal. He has to struggle for years before he can even get close to victory.

The filmmakers' skill in telling this story is impressive. The screenplay, by Stephen Knight, jumps back and forth through time to keep the story's themes at the forefront. The cinematography of Remi Adefarasin skillfully uses light and dark to bring out the story's themes.

During the scenes depicting Wilberforce's long years of struggle, light and dark visual compositions convey the measure of his optimism and pessimism, respectively. That's at least a convention and at worst a cliche in the movies, but it makes sense here and is done with sufficient skill that it doesn't obtrude. In addition, given that the great majority of the film portrays times of struggle, the darker scenes predominate greatly and thus afford a basically consistent look.

This theme of light and darkness is taken up in the narrative in the story of John Newton, an Englishman and former slaveship captain who converted to Christianity and became an evangelistic preacher. Newton wrote the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace," and its prominent line, "I . . . was blind, but now I see," is used in the film to great effect, when Newton loses his sight but speaks to Wilberforce of his real ability to see. In depicting this character, Albert Finney once again shows his great brilliance as an actor in depicting both Newton's towering strength and his harrowing doubts and personal guilt. Newton's life is indeed, as the film makes clear, a powerful illustration of each person's need for a Savior.

A particularly effective use of this interaction of light and dark occurs in a scene in which Wilberforce expresses to his wife-to-be, Barbara, his doubts that he and his forces will ever be able to end the slave trade. As he speaks, Wilberforce twice takes a new candle, melts the bottom over the expiring flame of one that is about to go out, and sets the new one firmly in place of the old. It is a beautiful image that is easy to miss, but it means much in the context of the film. Renewal of the struggle, the need to shed light on injustice, the replacement of one strategy with another, and the power of just a little light—all of these themes are reflected in and reinforced by this humble, even mundane image.

Director Michael Apted contributes his usual solid, dependable, and basically self-effacing work. It is very effective here, as he concentrates on eliciting persuasive and affecting performances from the film's immensely talented cast. Ioan Gruffudd's performance is impeccable, and his skills are quite up to the task not only of depicting Wilberforce but also of not being blown off the screen by superb performers such as Finney, Michael Gambon (as the MP Lord Charles Fox), Benedict Cumberbatch (whose performance as Pitt the Younger is superb), Romola Garai (in an effectively understated turn as Barbara), Bill Paterson (excellent as wily Scots MP Lord Dundas), and Rufus Sewell in his standout performance as Wilberforce's friend and inspiration, Thomas Clarkson.

Adding further interest is the film's intelligent and comprehensible depiction of the politics of the time. The conservatives, of course, are those who will not even consider any alteration to the institution of slavery. Their concern (one that seemed valid at the time but was proven entirely illusory immediately after abolition) is that such a basic change will bring vast social disorder, poverty, and defeat in an imminent war with the French.

The radicals, represented by Clarkson, are too impatient to accept gradual change and require an immediate transformation of English society such that the entire aristocracy will be thrown out immediately, as is happening in France.

The liberals, Wilberforce and his allies, want change but recognize that they must find a way to do it such that both liberty and order will be maximized. A more perfect illustration of the essence of classical liberalism would be difficult to imagine. In an important and impassioned scene, Clarkson argues with Wilberforce about the need for thorough, immediate change. Wilberforce points out that prudence and justice require that things be done in an orderly way. Ultimately, both the radicals and the conservatives come to see things Wilberforce's way—or at least give in to it.

In his reaction to the French Revolution, Wilberforce shares the thinking of the great British political philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke, one of the first great modern liberals. Perhaps the most startling thing about Amazing Grace is its vivid illustration of the Christian foundations of true liberalism. In Christianity as in the world in general, reason and compassion are always in tension. In Christianity, however, as Amazing Grace and the life of William Wilberforce demonstrate vividly, they are ultimately in harmony. In any particular case, it is up to the body of believers to find where the two come together, in the greatest balance of liberty and order, for in that balance is improvement of the human condition made most consistent and endurable.

Most Highly Recommended.

From Karnick on Culture.

4 comments:

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Sam, thanks for the review. I look forward to seeing the movie. I was wondering if you saw a piece in Friday's WSJ about the movie by a Charlotte Allen. She has a different take on how the movie depicts Wilberforce's faith. She says it downplays the role his Christianity played in his life.

I found the article online at OpinionJournal.com. You'll find it in Friday's edition under "On the Taste Page." Click through and you'll see the article, "Hollywood's 'Amazing' Glaze: What the new movie covers up about William Wilberforce." If you get a chance I would love to see what you think about her take on the movie.

I have a feeling some people are not fans of subtle when it comes to depicting their faith in movies, but until I see it I can't really say how it's played in the movie. I trust what I think is your more nuanced understanding of the movie, so that's why I am very curious about what you think of her view of it. Thanks.

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks for the reference, Mike. I categorically disagree with Ms. Allen's assessment of the film. To give evidence of an absence in a film is difficult, of course, but it is significant that she doesn't give any examples of specific instances in which the film slights religion. All she provides is an interview statement by Michael Apted to Christianity Today in which he clearly meant to convey that he wanted to avoid preachiness in the film. That is a statement for which I would commend him.

In my analysis here I concentrate on how the film's aesthetic techniques convey its ideas, and hence I don't give a lot of examples about how the film shows Wilberforce's religious convictions and how they affect his actions. But that is indeed a strong aspect of the film, pace Ms. Allen. She fails to acknowledge, for example, the film's treatment of Wilberforce's struggle to decide whether to go into politics or the ministry, and his friends' persuasive argument that his talents would be best spent in politics and hence that is the best place for him to serve God. The first scene in which we see him at home, he is lying on the ground staring in wonder at the pastoral scene around him, and talks to his servant about his great delight in God's creation. If anything, Wilberforce comes off as entirely driven by religion and specifically a fiercely passionate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There can be no doubt of this from anyone watching the film fairly and carefully.

In addition, the treatment of Wilberforce's friend John Newton is about nothing but his Christianity and how it affected his life. And so on, throughout the film.

To suggest, as Ms. Allen does, that this film obscures the Christian foundations of the slavery-abolition movement in a mannter reminscent of Spielberg's Amistad is so wrong as to be calumnious.

The film makes it perfectly clear that Wilberforce's evangelical Christianity was entirely central to his actions.

My analysis of the film begins with a point about a scene being more subtle than it may initially seem. Perhaps Ms. Allen simply wanted more of a Fox Faith kind of thing. That, of course, is her prerogative, but I'll take Amazing Grace any day.

Michael Simpson said...

I'm with Sam - I don't know what Allen was lookin for - maybe an altar call at the end?

And can you believe that they made the film for less than $30 million?

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Sam, thanks for the review of the review. This seems so typical of Christians who think influencing culture is best done with a cudgel about the head. They look for ways to be offended and see the sleight where none exists. The aroma of faith is much more effective than a seven course meal shoved down the throat. I can't wait to see it with my whole family.