We went to see the Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace this afternoon. It is a well acted and gripping portrayal of Wilberforce's parliamentary battle against the slave trade. Welsh actor, Ioan Gruffudd played the lead role with sensitivity and pathos. In his hands, Wilberforce comes to life as a real human being with joy, compassion and righteous persistence. His battle with ill health for which he was treated with laudanum, allows us to see the private vulnerability of Wilberforce the public figure.
John Newton is played as a somewhat frazzled, monkish figure by the great Albert Finney. Newton has one of the best lines in the film, "Two things I know: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great saviour". Benedict Cumberbatch plays the role of Prime Minsister William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce's friend and political ally in the campaign against slavery. Much of the film revolves around the friendship between these two very different political figures. Barbara Spooner, played by Romola Garai supplies the films romantic interest. After an awkward first encounter, Wilberforce falls in love and then marries the beautiful and principled Barbara.
The movie made it clear that it was Wilberforce's evangelical conversion that drove him to campaign against slavery. His other reforming interests, such as animal welfare and education were also highlighted.
Some reviewers have complained that Wilberforce's role in the battle against slavery is given prominence at the expense of other important figures such as Thomas Clarkson. But this is a Wilber biopic, not a docu-drama on the abolition of slavery as a whole. The film shows that Wiberforce was certainly not a lone abolitionist. Others worked with him to gather information and to disseminate the gruesome facts of the slave trade. But Wilberforce undoubtedly led the abolitionist cause where it mattered, in Parliament. The parliamentary set-pieces are well done, with a good mixture of fine oratory, quick wit and typical House of Commons rowdiness.
The film drives the narrative forward by a series of flaskbacks, as Wilberforce tells the story of the fight against slavery to his beloved Barbara. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether we are in the "past" or "present" of the film's story. I know that flashback are de rigeur in Hollywood and they sometimes work well. But what's wrong with linear story telling?
The thing that shines through is Wilberforce's dogged, determined and ultimately successful battle against the evils of the slave trade. This is what made watching Amazing Grace such an inspiring experience. My wife and I enjoyed the film as did our children. It was refreshing to see evangelical Christianity portrayed so positively. Newton's hymn Amazing Grace is the musical motif that holds the film together and emphasises that it was grace that made William Wilberforce the great man that he was.