We recently saw the movie Amazing Grace, which is about William Wilberforce and his long campaign to end the slave trade. I loved, loved, loved it. Of course I’m a sucker for most costume dramas, and I also spent a year immersed in exactly the history from which the movie is drawn, so I’m undoubtedly biased. <g> (My book that resulted from the research, A Distant Magic, looks at abolition through a lens of fantasy and romance, but it’s basically the same history.)
I was hooked from the moment I saw the trailer online several months ago (you can see it at http://amazinggracemovie.com/ ) I defy any history lover (which most people who come here are) to see that trailer and not want to rush out and see the movie. (Though as I said, I’m biased.)
Ioan Gruffud (who made a marvelous Horatio Hornblower) plays Wilberforce, and while he’s undoubtedly taller and better looking that the real WW (who was very short and frail looking), he does a terrific job portraying Wilberforce’s strength, faith, and sensitivity. It’s said that when Wilberforce spoke, he sounded a foot taller and he could hold the whole House of Commons in the palm of his hands when he spoke. And given how rowdy Parliament can be, that was no small feat!
The cast is a feast of great British actors. Rufus Sowell, whom I first saw as a rural hunk in Cold Comfort Farm (one of my favorite movies of all time), plays the radical cleric Thomas Clarkson, whose organizing and activism were as essential as the political tenacity of the more establishment Wilberforce.
Ciaran Hinds, who was the lovely naval captain in the movie of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (another personal fave) plays Tarleton, the MP from Liverpool who was one of the slave trade’s greatest supporters. (Yes, this is the same Colonel Banastre “Bloody” Tarleton of Revolutionary War infamy.)
Only the British could make a movie of talking heads and politics and make it so gripping. It helps that there is lot of sly British humor along the way. Wilberforce’s long time friend and political ally, William Pitt the Younger (who became Prime Minister at age 24) is played by an actor I’ve never heard of, Benedict Cumberbatch. (Isn’t that Dickensian? <g>) He does a terrific job, and also gets a lot of first rate one-liners.
I’ve heard that some reviewers are claiming that the movie downplayed the extent to which Wilberforce’s work was driven by his faith, but I would have to question whether those reviewers actually saw the movie. Faith was clearly the heart of Wilberforce's commitment, and equally clearly, his strongest supporters were Quakers and fellow evangelicals. (Above is the image of Albert Finney playing the Reverend John Newton, the slave ship captain turned evangelical preacher who wrote the song "Amazing Grace.")
At the beginning, Wilberforce is wrestling about whether he can serve God and society both. His faith is always there, and the last shot in the movie is of Westminster Abbey with a military band playing the music of Amazing Grace. (And amazing moving it was, too.) I thought the elements of a very complicated movie were very well balanced.
I was impressed at how they structured such a big, sprawling story that covered many years. (I struggled with the same problems in my book.) A good part of the story is told in flashbacks as Wilberforce talks through the night with a lovely young female admirer, Barbara Spooner. It’s a charming romance and yes, more or less true to the historical record.
Even if you’re not especially interested in Wilberforce, the movie is worth watching for the historical details, from lighting candles to the way animals are always rambling around the property. (Wilberforce was also a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Truly, he was perhaps the greatest reformer in British history.) It’s also fun to see the costume changes. At the beginning, wigs and Georgian brocades. In the last great vote to end the trade in 1807, we’re almost into the Regency and the wigs are gone. (Ending the slave trade was the first great battle. Full emancipation didn't come until the 1830s.)
If you’re interested in the history, I recommend reading Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains (a National Book Award Finalist). It’s a terrific read, with the tension of a novel and a sweeping view of a historical era that I didn’t learn about in high school.
But in the meantime, you might want to see the movie if it’s still playing near you. It’s a way to support history in popular entertainment. <G>
So, have you seen the movie? Do you want to? Do you know much about this era of history? It's inspiring to see that sometimes, humankind does the right thing even when it isn't easy.
Mary Jo, who will certainly buy the DVD