Saturday, August 11, 2007


AMAZING GRACE (2006, UK/USA, Michael Apted, Steven Knight screenplay)
You found God, sir?
I think He found me.

It’s a picture you wouldn’t have thought would ever get made – and certainly not by such exceptional film makers. It tells a hugely important story about the one thing Evangelical Christians got inarguably right – and, unlike AMISTAD, it doesn’t falsify the faith of its central characters.

If you’d stumbled on the historical facts, you’d have thought to yourself, this needs to be a movie – too bad Hollywood will never make it. The astonishing fact that William Wilberforce, who made the British parliament outlaw the slave trade, did so as a result of a profound Christian conversion. That his mentor, the aging John Newton, composed what may be the best-known gospel hymn ever sung, Amazing Grace. That Newton was himself a former slave trader, the song written in repentance for his sins. “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” It gives you chills.

There’s nothing fancy in the way this story gets told: it’s a good old-fashioned biopic, with wigs and breeches and chewy accents. If the screenplay tends at times to melodrama, you forgive it: that’s all part of the fun, and there’s always the iron spine of conviction to cover a multitude more sins of that sort. Apted decides it’s better err on the side of occasional melodrama than to mute so extraordinary a tale by playing it safe, and I say God bless him. “To hell with caution.”

Screenwriter Steven Knight penned DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, a fiercely principled story about the modern “slaves” who keep our economy humming, refugees without status and illegal immigrants who make our clothes and clean our hotel rooms, who live alongside us in an invisible no-man’s-land without recourse to law. That same sense of outrage saves AMAZING GRACE whenever it risks being too cute or too safe. Wilber (that’s what they called him, so we might as well) has a dour group of social activists to his house for dinner: abruptly, the wildest-eyed among them sweeps the dishes from the table to slam down chains and leg irons, and the air is suddenly cleared of all that earnest conscientiousness. These people may be off-puttingly well-meaning, but blood is in the air – we’re reminded frequently that the French Revolution is running its violent course just the other side of the Channel.

There’s also terrific story of friendship weathering the test of time and political life, between Wilberforce and William Pitt, Britain’s youngest Prime Minister (elected at the age of 24!). Also a cracking good love story with a fiery red-head to keep things lively, and a Dickens-worthy panoply of vividly drawn supporting characters played with all the verve and sharpness you’d wish from a company of top notch British actors.

Best of all, the film stays true to the historical fact that, for all the drama of the circumstances, slavery wasn’t stopped in a day, and that so protracted a fight extracted a terrible cost. That it all ended not with a bang but a bill, the culmination of decades of dogged legislative machinations among the very men who most profited from the slave trade. A long obedience in the same direction. That the film makers have fashioned even those everyday realities into so compelling a picture is, frankly, nothing short of amazing.


DVD unreleased at time of posting


Thrawn said...

I really wanted to see this but couldn't get to the theater at the time. Do you know when it will be released on DVD?

Ron Reed said...

I've seen different dates different places. Video ETA currently gives November 13 2007, but even the AMAZING GRACE official website doesn't give a date. So who knows.