Underrated: amazing Grace
by rebecca wynne-walsh
Amazing Grace is a grossly underrated film in every regard. It features a superb cast, many of whom have never received the fame they deserve. Its visuals are classic but beautiful. Under the masterful direction of Michael Apted it succeeds in finding new vibrancy and excitement in the well-worn biopic structure. But, most importantly, it tells a story that is criminally under-told with respect to its value in human history.
Amazing Grace follows British politician William Wilberforce along his lifelong journey to make the world a better place, culminating in his incredible leadership of the British Abolition movement which, in 1833 after much struggle, climaxed in the British abolition of the slave-trade. Wilberforce is an impressive figure of humanitarianism. The many causes he supported throughout his career included campaigns against animal cruelty, campaigns for better living conditions in prisons and outspoken support for Irish independence. All of these endeavours are necessarily overshadowed by his leadership and success within the British anti-slavery movement, the cause which is the central focus of Apted’s film.
The title of the film is derived from the hymn of the same name which, in another undertold story, was written by John Newton, a former crewman on countless slave ships who gave his life to religion upon witnessing the horrors of the trade he was a part of.
The film is led by the commanding acting talents of Ioan Gruffudd. Gruffudd is known to most as Mister Fantastic from the (also underrated) 2005 Fantastic 4 movie. His Hollywood career has rarely afforded him a character of such depth but his emotionally complex portrayal of Wilberforce is one to be commended that honestly, should have garnered him an Oscar nomination. Gruffudd emotively but never exaggeratedly takes us through Wilberforce’s deteriorating health, his frustration, his disillusionment and most powerfully, his passionate determination. Gruffudd steals numerous scenes with his resounding speeches and easy charm but instinctively knows when generosity is key and when a scene must be led by another performance. If chivalry were dead then, in this film, Gruffudd steers its resurrection.
Gruffudd is supported by a stellar ensemble. Romola Garai delights as his intelligent and forceful wife who refuses to allow his fight to be lost. A young Benedict Cumberbatch entertains as British Prime Minister William Pitt, the Sundance Kid to Wilberforce’s Butch Cassidy as it were. And Albert Finney inspires as the aforementioned hymn-writer who so powerfully ignites the fires of revolution in the idealistic mind of William Wilberforce.
Amazing Grace fractures the chronology of its story so that we flit between Wilberforce as a young and energetic politician at the beginning of his career, key turning points throughout that career and his final days as his weak health spirals out of control during climactic parliament debates surrounding his life’s mission. This scintillating structure was written by Steven Knight, who went on to put his talents to worthy use on such landmark productions as Peaky Blinders and Taboo. Knight’s talent for narrative is as apparent here as in his later works as he manages to reignite the familiar biopic structure to bring a worthy level of excitement to the thrilling tale at hand.
Once you have watched this underrated film you will find yourself researching its key players with fervour, forever emotionally affected by this story of empowerment, freedom, passion and human rights.