December 9, 2007

DVD Review: Amazing Grace

Have you ever heard of William Wilberforce? I hadn't prior to seeing this film earlier this year. I still cannot say that I know much of the real man, but at least now I know of his existence and the fact that he played an important part in history. Maybe it is my ignorance of history, or perhaps the education system is to blame, as I do not recall this figure ever being mentioned in my years of classes. Perhaps it is just the fact that I grew up in America and the American educational systems exclusion of very detailed world history.

Whatever the case is, I learned about an important figure with a somewhat unfortunate name. Seriously, William Wilberforce? I do not mean to make fun of it, but you have to admit that the alliteration and presence of "-force" is a bit funny sounding, no? Also, before you say it, no I do not accept everything shown in this film as fact; I am aware that many elements may have been touched up, switched, or slightly reimagined in the search of drama, while not betraying the core truths of the tale. The end result is an interesting portrait of a man who was good and worked towards that end for his entire life. It is just important to remember that any historical film, or any "based on a true story" movie for that matter, needs to taken with a grain of salt. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, although the bigger picture is likely to be accurate, the details have almost assuredly been changed, even slightly.

The story covers Wilberforce's life in broad strokes. It is more a film about the movement and the changes that he helped to bring about, rather than the life of the man. This is perfectly evidenced by the lack of any real growth, or connection with anyone in the film. Sure, we see that he is friends with Pitt the Younger, and married to Barbara, and approached by Thomas Clarkson and others to spearhead the movement, but the relationships are more sketched than fully developed.

Would it have been nice to see these in more detail? Yes, it would, it would have made the film stand out more to see more of the person than to just know that he was good. At the same time, it is nice to see an inspirational film like this that doesn't give us a flawed hero — instead, we get someone who has a good heart and puts forth the effort necessary. Is it historically accurate? I have no idea, and frankly, I don't care.

Wilberforce is a young political upstart and idealist, seeing the evil of slavery and seeking to end the practice, he leads a small group against the entrenched pro-slavery crew that is currently in charge. The movie follows him as he struggles against the English political machine in his efforts to win them over, one at a time. While the story is intriguing, and relatively well told, it circumvents most of the character development in favor of hitting the big emotional points and allowing for much oratory.

Michael Apted's direction of Steven Knight's script is earnest. It moves forward in such a way that you never doubt what is going to happen next, and despite it being quite interesting, it is devoid of any real dramatic tension. This coupled with the lack of true character development are what hold this film back. Still, Apted does a fine job of dropping us right into 18th century England. You will feel that you are there, on the crowded streets, in the card rooms, everywhere Wilberforce goes.

In the end, it is that earnestness that carries the film, and with it, my interest. It may sound as if I am not that big of a fan, and honestly, I'm not, but that does not mean that I don't like it. I do like it. I like the modest bits of humor, in particular from Michael Gambon's Lord Charles Fox, I like the bright eyed enthusiasm from Ioan Gruffudd's portrayal of Wilberforce, and I like the verve with which the abolition movement is led. It is a rare film that delivers a person who changed the world without feeling it has to humanize the person by portraying flaws for him to overcome; it is more about the deeds than the man.

Acting is good all around, and it is one of the better performances from Gruffudd, who is better known as Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four (and its upcoming sequel). He does a good job of carrying emotion when there is not much to squeeze from the straightforward script. Gambon is a guy who is having fun with his character, a respected Parliament member who sides with the underdog abolitionists. It took until the credits to realize that Rufus Sewell played Thomas Clarkson, I knew he looked familiar, and I liked the performance, but could not make that connection.

Not to be forgotten is Albert Finney as John Newton. Newton was a former slave ship captain who had his eyes opened to the errors of his ways, after which he became a member of the Anglican clergy and wrote the song of the title, "Amazing Grace." He was also a mentor to the young Wilberforce, and an inspiration in his history and in his songwriting. Finney does a fine job of portraying a man who is truly tortured by his past.

Audio/Video. The copy I have is a burned pre-release copy (I know this has been out for a few weeks, I'm just a bit behind). This being the case, I cannot speak to how well the technical quality of this disk compares to the production copy you will find on the shelves. It didn't look all that bad, but I do not wish to mislead.

  • Commentary. The track features director Michael Apted and star Ioan Gruffudd. I sampled the track, and the two make a worthy listen. They discuss how they became involved with the project and how they approached the subject as well as the making of the film.
  • How Sweet the Sound: The Story of Amazing Grace. This is a good look at the film, from production notes to details of the subject's life. (~30 minutes)
  • Finding Freedom: A Tour of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. A look at the center that is dedicated to end slavery, which still exists in the world. (~7 minutes)
  • Amazing Grace: Performed by Chris Tomlin. A performance of the song from the film's soundtrack accompanied by footage from the film. (4.5 minutes)
  • Amazing Grace Partners. A text listing of organizations that carry on Wilberforce's work.
  • Interactive Study Guide and Discussion Tools. A DVD-ROM feature with information on how to help.
  • Discussion Guide Clips. Clips that can be used to accompany the above content.

Bottomline. This is a good film about an interesting character in a time of great social change. It is flawed, yet that does not dampen the heart that fills it. It is a movie that will help reaffirm hope in humanity, showing that it is possible for a small group to have a lasting impact on the world. I only wish that it was a little deeper in character.



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