This is one of those wholesome movies the entire family can enjoy. From veteran director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Amazing Grace is the true story of William Wilberforce, the 18th Century political activist who spent nearly his entire adult life campaigning to end the British slave trade. It’s a simple but compelling story wonderfully told, with a superb cast including Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four), relative newcomer Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement) and stage and screen legends Albert Finney (Big Fish) and Sir Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
The film picks up some time in 1797, well into Wilberforce’s political crusade. The man is in shambles, sick with colitis, addicted to some sort of opiate (for medicinal use only, of course) and suffering nightmares. He has given up the fight to abolish slavery in his beloved Britain, and it will take the introduction of his bride-to-be to get him back on track.
Director Apted alternates between that time and the decade or so leading up to it, showing the development of Wilberforce’s commitment and his lifelong friendship with William Pitt (Cumberbatch). The pair apparently rose to power quite quickly, with Pitt becoming the nation’s youngest prime minister. Their friendship is an integral part of the story, although Pitt – in his powerful but precarious position as PM – is mostly a bystander in the fight against the entrenched status quo of the slave trade. As for Wilberforce, his principles are grounded in a strong Christian faith, so much so that he feels torn between a career of political action and a life of praising and communing with God. Pitt, ever the political gamesman, arranges for a select group of abolitionists to convince Wilberforce that he can, in fact, do both.
For a political drama, Amazing Grace is fairly simplistic. It draws concrete lines between good and evil, leaving no questions for the audience about whom they should cheer for, and whom they should revile. This lack of complexity doesn’t faze the film’s cast, many of whom turn in exceptional, multi-faceted performances. Of particular note is Albert Finney as John Newton, former captain of a slave ship and the lyricist responsible for the film’s titular song. He is a man haunted by thousands of ghosts, trying to live a life of repentance for his many sins.
Speaking of the song, its use in the film is but one of the historical inaccuracies introduced by screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things). Wilberforce is shown singing the song atop a table in a room full of political movers and shakers, to proclaim his stance against the slave trade. Thing is, while Newton had indeed written the words to “Amazing Grace” by that point, the famous tune had not yet been composed. Another example: Charles Fox (Gambon), one of Wilberforce’s most crucial allies, is shown starting the standing ovation when the anti-slavery law is finally passed. In reality, Fox died several years before this event. While this certainly isn’t the first historical film to take liberties with the truth, given the widespread unfamiliarity with this story, it’s a shame the folks behind Amazing Grace didn’t paint a more accurate-in-the-details picture.
Ultimately, though, it’s the broad strokes we’re concerned about, and Amazing Grace handles these with a practiced hand. The story is powerful and uplifting, and no amount of historical inaccuracy or level of simplicity can take away the fact that the film is a pleasing entertainment experience.
Amazing Grace is presented on a single disc, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It has a clean transfer with no apparent compression issues, but the overall picture is a little washed out for my tastes, and there’s a bit too much film grain. The colours are perhaps a little too natural, drawn from an overly drab palette. I understand the film’s a period piece, but it would have been nice to see a more vivid presentation with more visual style. Still, details are sharp enough, and it does have that solid transfer. I’d call this one slightly above average.
The main audio presentation is Dolby Digital 5.1, though your system may not notice. The mix is quite front-heavy, with little support from the surrounds and the low-frequency channel. The most (and only) inspiring aural moments are thanks to David Arnold’s score – although it telegraphs emotions for us, it does so with a rich, full quality. Oh, and there’s a particularly inspiring rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the film’s end, which will likely leave you sitting in quiet reflection for several moments afterward. Unfortunately, there are a few problem spots, all associated with the weather. In at least two scenes, dialogue is difficult to make out over the ambient rain, necessitating a reverse for a second pass with straining ears.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
As a single-disc release, Amazing Grace offers up the usual extras, including an audio commentary with director Michael Apted and star Ioan Gruffudd, and the following featurettes:
- How Sweet the Sound – The Story of Amazing Grace: at about 30 minutes, this is an enjoyable, informative piece that features interviews with many members of the cast and crew. While it’s a little heavy on the plot reiteration, this one’s definitely worth watching for fans looking to learn more.
- Amazing Grace music video: award-winning, Christian singer-songwriter Chris Tomlin, performing his own version of the famous song.
- Finding Freedom: a mini-featurette tour of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a multi-million-dollar facility that opened in Cincinnati in 2004.
- DVD-ROM study guide and discussion notes: a handy feature for school or church groups looking to use Amazing Grace as an educational tool.
In light of some of the embarrassingly poor examples of Christian-themed films in recent years, I’m really pleased to see Amazing Grace, with its excellent production values and inspiring, important story. I’d recommend this film – and this DVD – to anyone.
- Blogger The Urban Monk sees Amazing Grace as an appropriate commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade.
- Reviewer Draven99 liked the movie, but thinks “William Wilberforce” is a stupid name.