Amazing Grace is a film that tries to be several things at once. It is meant to be a pious, inspirational film to appeal to that highly moral movie-going segment that made The Passion Of The Christ such a rousing success. It is also supposed to be an old-style costumed bit of Hollywood entertainment, with Ioan Gruffudd playing the handsome, dashing, and so-wonderfully decent leading man. Finally, it is meant to be a subtle commentary on the morals of the modern world, and what happens when a morally advanced society embraces a moral abomination (in this case, slavery) in the name of the greater national good.
The story centers around the campaign of one William Wilberforce (Gruffudd) to end the transatlantic slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Britain at that time was growing rich on the production of refined sugar in the Caribbean, for which a ready supply of cheap African slave labor was needed to grow sugar cane, harvest it, and convert the cane juice into sugar and molasses. Though many in England quietly find the use of slavery repugnant, almost no one is willing to question the system because economic prosperity is the cornerstone of the Empire. Enter Mr. Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, a rich merchant’s son, a friend of the soon-to-be Prime Minister (William Pitt The Younger), and a highly moral man who struggles with entering the religious orders. Mr. Pitt needs Wilberforce as an ally in his bid to become the youngest Prime Minister ever, but Mr. Wilberforce is unsure. He is persuaded when he meets anti-slavery activists who argue that he can do the work of God by fighting slavery and still be a politician. From there, it is a struggle of many years to change hearts and minds that is eventually victorious.
How well the film succeeds depends on how you look at it. With talent to spare in the form of Mr. Gruffudd (a generally excellent actor last seen by most Geeks of Doom readers as Reed Richards in Fantastic Four), Michael Gambon (the second Dumbledore), Rufus Sewell (John Murdoch in Dark City), and Albert Finney, the film is a very well-played entertainment, full of meaty dialogue and elaborate set pieces. As an inspirational film, it tells an uplifting story very much along the lines of Steven Spielberg‘s Amistad. As a true portrait of William Wilberforce and his times, it falls a bit short — this is clearly an old fashioned Hollywood entertainment, not a PBS documentary. Mr. Gruffudd is the dashing hero, and any complexities or inconsistencies that would otherwise make him more human are swept under the carpet.
In the end, I liked the film. The actors were a true pleasure to watch, and it was easy to get caught up in the moral struggle at the center of the plot. If Hollywood’s William Wilberforce is somewhat more superhuman than human, so be it. I don’t always need my heroes up on pedestals, but it is still enjoyable to put one up there and gaze in admiration from time to time.