An early scene in Amazing Grace establishes the film’s themes in a way that is more subtle than it may initially seem.
Young William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) confronts a man who is beating an exhausted horse as it lies inert in the mud, in an impossible and heartless attempt to get it to do its appointed work. But it is not simply Wilberforce’s compassion that is at work here — that would be an insufferable cliché. The man reacts threateningly to Wilberforce’s intervention, but instead of responding with anger, accusations, or pleas for sympathy for the exhausted animal, Wilberforce confronts him with straight facts, pure reason, and an appeal to the man’s self-interest. He tells the man that if he lets the horse rest for a half hour or so, it will be ready to carry on.
The man grudgingly realizes the sense in this, and drops his whip into the mud.
This is precisely what Wilberforce would go on to do as a member of Parliament and the man who led the empire to abolish slavery. His great cause was to bring to light the facts of slavery and persuade his countrymen to do the right thing.
Amazing Grace is certainly suffused with religion, but it is not a “religious film.” Issues and consequences of religious faith appear precisely where they belong in this particular story: at the heart of the characters’ motivations. Most of the film deals directly not with religion but with politics. And the treatment of politics is thoroughly intelligent and insightful.
The film tells the story of the late-18-century English member of Parliament William Wilberforce, who as a young man finds his religious conscience so seared by the existence of slavery in his society that he turns away from a career in the religious ministry, which he would greatly prefer to undertake, in favor of a career in politics, where he can manifest his love for God by making the world a better place.
This is both scripturally sound and historically accurate. Wilberforce did indeed help to make the world a much better place.
The film shows the transition of Britain from a society in which a small aristocracy ruled without much influence from the general public, to one in which the public’s opinion mattered immensely. This is in great part a manifestation of the world-changing effects of Protestantism, and Amazing Grace shows that relationship by depicting the central place of Wilberforce’s evangelical zeal in motivating his entirely quixotic ambition to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
His aspiration is quixotic because slavery is so ingrained into the British economy that almost everyone has an interest in keeping it going. Hence, at first there is overwhelming opposition to Wilberforce’s ambitious proposal. He has to struggle for years before he can even get close to victory.
The filmmakers’ skill in telling this story is impressive. The screenplay, by Stephen Knight, jumps back and forth through time to keep the story’s themes at the forefront. The cinematography of Remi Adefarasin skillfully employs visual compositions to bring out the story’s themes.
During the scenes depicting Wilberforce’s long years of struggle, light and dark visual compositions convey the measure of his optimism and pessimism, respectively. That’s at least a convention and at worst a cliché in the movies, but it makes sense here and is done with sufficient skill that it doesn’t obtrude. In addition, given that the great majority of the film portrays times of struggle, the darker scenes predominate greatly and thus afford a basically consistent look.
This theme of light and darkness is taken up in the narrative in the story of John Newton, an Englishman and former slave-ship captain who converted to Christianity and became an evangelistic preacher. Newton wrote the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace,” and its prominent line, “I . . . was blind, but now I see,” is used in the film to great effect, when Newton loses his sight but speaks to Wilberforce of his real ability to see, given him by God. In depicting this character, Albert Finney skillfully expresses both Newton’s towering strength and his harrowing doubts and personal guilt. Newton’s life is indeed, as the film makes clear, a powerful illustration of each person’s need for a Savior.
A particularly effective use of the interaction of light and dark occurs in a scene in which Wilberforce expresses to his wife-to-be, Barbara, his increasing doubts that he and his allies will ever be able to end the slave trade. As he speaks, Wilberforce twice takes a candle, melts the bottom over the expiring flame of one that is about to go out, and sets the new one firmly in place of the old. It is a beautiful image that is easy to miss, but it means much in the context of the film. Renewal of the struggle, the need to shed light on injustice, the replacement of one strategy with another, and the power of just a little light — all of these themes are reflected in and reinforced by this humble, even mundane image.
Director Michael Apted contributes his usual solid, dependable, and basically self-effacing work. It is very effective here, as he concentrates on eliciting persuasive and affecting performances from the film’s immensely talented cast. Ioan Gruffudd’s performance is impeccable, and his skills are quite up to the task not only of depicting Wilberforce but also of not being blown off the screen by superb performers such as Finney, Michael Gambon (as the MP Lord Charles Fox), Benedict Cumberbatch (whose depiction of Pitt the Younger is superb), Romola Garai (in an effectively understated turn as Barbara), Bill Paterson (excellent as the wily Scots MP Lord Dundas), and Rufus Sewell in his standout performance as Wilberforce’s friend and inspiration, Thomas Clarkson.
Adding further interest is the film’s intelligent and comprehensible depiction of the politics of the time — and its implications for other eras. The conservatives of the time, of course, are those who will not even consider any alteration to the institution of slavery. Their concern (one that seemed valid then but was proven entirely illusory immediately after abolition) is that such a basic change will bring vast social disorder, poverty, and catastrophic defeat in an imminent war with the French.
The radicals, represented by Clarkson, are too impatient to accept gradual change. They want an immediate transformation of English society such that the entire aristocracy will be thrown out immediately, as is happening in France.
The liberals, Wilberforce, and his allies, want change but recognize that they must find a way to do it such that both liberty and order will be maximized. A more perfect illustration of the essence of classical liberalism would be difficult to imagine. In an important and impassioned scene, Clarkson argues with Wilberforce about the need for immediate, radical change on the order of the French Revolution. Wilberforce points out that prudence and justice require that things be done in an orderly way. Ultimately, both the radicals and the conservatives come to see things Wilberforce’s way — or at least give in to it.
In his reaction to the French Revolution, Wilberforce shares the thinking of the British political philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke, a Catholic and one of the first great modern liberals. Perhaps the most startling thing about Amazing Grace is its vivid illustration of the Christian foundations of true liberalism. In Christianity as in the world in general, reason and compassion are always in tension. In Christianity, however, as Amazing Grace and the life of William Wilberforce demonstrate vividly, they are ultimately in harmony. In any particular case, it is up to the body of believers to find where the two come together, in the greatest balance of liberty and order — for in that balance is improvement of the human condition made most consistent and endurable.
— S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.