Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Amazing Grace

An Amazing Movie
by Charlie Leck [11 April 2007]

Never have I been so fascinated by a movie. I didn’t want to leave when it was over. I wanted to stay, to watch it again and again. My terrific and discriminating wife felt the same way. We wondered why the reviews of the movie, several of which we had read before heading out to the theater, weren’t perfect and full of unconditional praise. Could anyone act at a higher level than this? Could sets and costuming be more perfect? Could cinematography and sound be better? Could the color be more brilliant? Could a story be more powerful? No, no, no, no, no and no! Why aren’t more films as brilliant and entertaining as this one? I would be constantly at the theater if they were.

Let me just add that I have many friends who feel equally positive about this film. Home from seeing it, we immediately began exchanging emails with friends, telling them about this wonderful movie. Most had already seen it and all shared our enthusiasm. Granted, we’re a bit older than the average bear, so maybe the sense of complete satisfaction has something to do with that. The reviewers were not unkind to the film, but they certainly didn’t give it the kind of kudos we do.

Then, also, I love English history. And, I love the history of politics in England from the 17th century forward. And, William Wilberforce is one of the most important characters in all of English political and legislative history. Then, too, there is the extraordinary hymn written by John Newton who had captained a slave ship for a number of years at the height of the slave trade between the Africas and the Americas. It all makes for a powerful story that teems with emotion and tension.

So, I was familiar going in with the lives of Wilberforce and William Pitt (the younger); and, I also knew well the story of this popular and famous hymn and its author. I remember a perfectly wonderful Bill Moyer’s special from years ago about the hymn and its author. The show was so delightful that I managed to get a copy of it on DVD. It is one of the most popular PBS shows of all time and it can still be purchased on DVD from www.pbs.org .

Albert Finney portrayed John Newton to perfection. Newton was tormented by his memories of the slaves he transported across the Atlantic. He was more tormented by the memories of those who died during the crossing. Newton gave the command that their bodies be fed to the sea. Newton was consumed by guilt and had to turn to the Almighty for forgiveness. In penance, he dedicated his life to the service of his Master and, in doing so, he found salvation in the wondrous grace of God – that amazing and totally free gift that washes clean all that it touches. Newton was born (1725) in a seafaring family and began sailing the seas at the age of eleven. He eventually entered into the prosperous business of transporting slaves. He nearly died on one of his voyages in 1748 when his ship was caught in a violent storm. During the storm he fell to his knees and prayed for mercy. That incident, and his delivery from certain death, became a life-changing event for him. He immediately converted to Christianity, gave up slave trading and, in addition to writing the famous hymn, wrote his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative. The book was published in 1764, which was also the year of Newton’s ordination as a priest in the Church of England.

William Wilberforce was played by Ioan Gruffudd. I don’t ever remember seeing the gentlemen in any role previous to this one. I read that he also appeared in the movie Blackhawk Down. I can’t wait to see him again. He was magnificent and totally believable. He aged a great deal over the time-line of the movie and his health worsened a great deal. Gruffudd was masterful as both a young man and as a more mature one. Wilberforce is a powerful figure in British history. Gruffudd portrayed him as such. If I could wish for anything more, it would be that the deep and abiding friendship between the elderly Newton and young Wilberforce could have been more fully developed; however, there is only so much time in a film for story development. An incredible source for information about the life, work and times of William Wilberforce is the biography written by his third son, The Life of William Wilberforce, published in 1868.

Pitt the Younger was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. I found absolutely no fault with his performance. I like the character at times and disliked him at other times. The actor carried both the likeable and the unlikeable Pitt equally well. Pitt became Prime Minister of England at the youthful age of 24.

Romola Garai was totally convincing playing Barbara Spooner, the woman who would eventually become Mrs. William Wilberforce. Ms Garai has won and been nominated for some of acting’s most prestigious awards. On top of all that, she is a delightfully beautiful woman.

I do not think there was any one character among those played by the rest of the supporting cast that could have been played better by anyone else. I even enjoyed being carried away into the story by those who were on the wrong side of the debate on this evil, contemptible issue.
I’m by no means a film critic and I don’t have the slightest idea about how to evaluate a director or film editor. Yet, when a film is so totally satisfying as this one was, the director and film editor must have done a pretty darn good job. Michael Apted directed this movie and he certainly shows the credentials of excellence in his past work. He worked with some pretty fine talent in the past: Dustin Hoffman, Sissy Spacek, William Hurt, John Belushi, Stacy Keech, Hugh Grant and Vanessa Redgrave. Apted is serving his second term as President of the Directors Guild of America.

Remi Adefarasin was the director of photography. What a brilliant job. Jenny Beavan was the costume designer. See the film and you’ll appreciate her incredible work as you will that of the hair and makeup designer, Jenny Shircore.

The film is based on a book by Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (ISBN: 0-06-117300-2). Naturally, I’ve already ordered the book and can’t wait for it to arrive.

I think you can tell that I’m recommending the movie to you – to all of you. I’ll be going back to see it again and I will own it when it comes out on DVD. It’s a great movie. Unfortunately, it probably won’t even get a mention when the Academy Awards come around later in the year.

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