For a film with all the stylistic panache of a BBC period yawner and all the moral ambiguity of an after-school special, Amazing Grace is a surprisingly entertaining political drama. It tells the story of famed British abolitionist William Wilberforce's struggle to end the slave trade in England. Its high-minded earnestness and longsuffering main character will remind movie buffs of another cinematic treatment of British history, A Man for All Seasons, but it's another similarity shared by these two films that sets Amazing Grace apart from all but a few mainstream movies being made today. Amazing Grace, like A Man for All Seasons, is a serious film about religious conviction and the power of individual believers to effect change in a world in need of redemption.
Make no mistake: Amazing Grace is not a complex movie. The good guys are good and the bad guys aren't so much bad as they are yet to become good. Such a simple and optimistic moral vision may seem antiquated to some, but Amazing Grace doesn't apologize for its old-fashioned piety. As the action starts, Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd
) undergoes a religious conversion. His long-abandoned childhood faith has once again stirred his heart and moved him to commit to doing whatever he can to improve the world. Already a member of Parliament, he asks several of his friends -- including the clergyman John Newton (Albert Finney
), who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace" -- if he should continue his political career or move on to a more spiritual pursuit. At all of his friends' urging, Wilberforce chooses politics and not long after takes an unpopular stand on the issue that will dominate his political career thereafter: the slave trade. Article continues below
A film with a premise like this one navigates dangerous territory. No reasonable, sane, or decent person alive today would disagree with Wilberforce's contention that slavery is a wicked affront to humanity, but nearly everyone alive today is likely to be annoyed by a character animated solely by the goodness of his bleeding heart. Who cares to watch a movie about someone like that? Nevertheless, there's something pleasurable about watching Wilberforce's crusade for all that's good and right and holy and decent. Whatever your religious or political beliefs may or may not be, it's nice to dream of a world in which a politician is motivated by his deepest convictions rather than by opinion polls, party lines, and special interest groups.
Aside from the hotly debated The Passion of the Christ, recent films with an explicitly "Christian" bent have been wholly unwatchable dreck. Christian filmmakers, like the makers of Left Behind and The Omega Code, have sold their fellow believers short, gambling that any movie with the "right" message -- no matter how terrible and unprofessional the film may actually be -- will attract the faithful in droves. That hasn't happened. Which is what makes Amazing Grace, well, kind of amazing. While it probably won't attract the faithful in droves, it's likely to please the audiences it does attract, and it's certainly not terrible and unprofessional. If anything, it's over-polished and too concerned with its own merits.
Indeed, the decision to hire director Michael Apted
, an old Hollywood pro, and to cast the likes of Finney, Gruffudd, Michael Gambon, and Ciarán Hinds all but guarantees the film's credibility as a worthy piece of entertainment. Likewise, screenwriter Scott Knight, last credited for the riveting Dirty Pretty Things, adds an element of urbane intelligence to a story perpetually verging on sanctimony.
The effect of all this is something like watching a movie at war with itself. In one scene, Finney is delivering a performance as raw and pained as anything onscreen all year. And in the next, the violins swell to such an absurdly high pitch (cue emotions!) that it's difficult to understand the words being spoken underneath the music. On one hand, it's hard not to wish the filmmakers didn't tack an unnecessary love story onto an otherwise effective political drama. On the other hand, it's impossible not to acknowledge the level of craftsmanship involved in telling a story whose ending is never in doubt but always manages to be surprising.
The virtues of Amazing Grace ultimately win out. By a nose. However, this isn't a movie for everyone -- even though it tries desperately to be. Instead, this is a movie for people who like uncomplicated, uplifting stories where good triumphs over evil and people who will buy tickets to watch their most wholesome dreams skillfully brought to life.