Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Movie (and Commentary) Review “Amazing Grace”

A friend loaned me “Amazing Grace” over the weekend. To me the abolition of slavery is one of the most important historical achievements of Western civilization. Having said that, I didn’t expect to be as affected by this movie as I was. I knew most of the major plot points and was familiar with most of the major characters through Adam Hochschild’s fabulous “Bury the Chains”). However, my familiarity didn’t reduce my enjoyment one iota. The movie managed to be an utterly thrilling and moving experience. All involved should be commended for not just telling this story but telling it well.

Ioan Gruffudd gave an amazing performance as William Wilberforce. Also impressive were Michael Gambon and Benedict Cumberbatch as Lord Fox and William Pitt respectively. And I’m exceedingly happy to report Rufus Sewell do NOT play a bad guy. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him be anything but a villain that I found his performance as Clarkson quite refreshing. In some respects, the structure, tone and characters in this film hearken back to an earlier era in movies (and I mean that in the most complimentary manner possible). The film ended with a surprisingly powerful rendition of the title song “Amazing Grace”. All in all, this is a must-see for both the quality of the product and the historical value of the story itself.

On a related topic, I also highly recommend the commentary track for this film. I was, for the most part, quite impressed with director Michael Apted’s approach to this film. He repeatedly emphasized that he wanted to make a film about politics and the good that could be done through the political process. He discussed how cynical modern audiences are of the politics but that, especially for this period in British history, the political process resulted in “a British revolution without blood in the streets.” This informed a great deal of the film’s focus on the parliamentary history of abolitionist movement as opposed to the facts of slavery. He also mentioned that they included a couple dream sequences with slaves to demonstrate Wilberforce (and many others) didn’t have much direct experience with slavery. Both he and lead Ioan Gruffudd emphasized showing a balance between Wilberforce's political and religious lives. They both appeared to have gone to great effort to demonstrate the genuine faith of the persons involved. Regarding how to show prayer in film, Apted even states at one point “Don’t make them look buffoons. Just get to the moment”.

My favorite portion of the commentary was Apted’s mention that the anti-slave arguments were not crack-pot ravings but actual valid economic and political arguments. He mentions in several places he didn’t want to minimize either the complexity or the historical context (French Revolution & Napoleonic Wars) of the anti-slavery movement in England. This is particularly interesting to me because I had an experience in my high school US history class where we initially were quite scornful of the compromises on slavery that lead to the ratification of the US Constitution. Our history teacher got revenge by re-creating the Constitutional Convention as a graded class debate and assigning the most scornful students the position of pro-slavery delegates. By recreating those debates, we were forced to ask the question “If not compromising on slavery prevented the Constitution for being ratified, would it be worth it? Or would we rather found the country and then, address this issue later?”. In the context of the film, it was a debate between “an imperfect order” (Wilberforce) and a perfect order (Clarkson). Needless to say, I immensely enjoyed listening to the commentary. Though I didn’t agree with everything said, it is clear a great deal of care was taken in presenting this film in an interesting and historically accurate manner.

No comments: