Friday, February 09, 2007

Coming Attraction: Amazing Grace

It is popular to dismiss religion as the motivation behind all manner of war and brutality in human history. However, Amazing Grace, the new film from director Michael Apted about William Wilberforce’s long campaign the end the British slave trade makes an explicit connection between his Evangelical Christian faith and the cause of justice. While some Christian commentators have expressed concern Wilberforce’s faith would be whitewashed by the filmmakers, on screening the film, it seemed a reasonably prominent element of the drama.

The strongest element of Grace is the dramatization of the parliamentary campaign itself. Ending the slave trade was a noble pursuit, but Wilberforce and his allies still had to make their case and count the votes. Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic to comic geeks) is appropriately intense as Wilberforce, showing the tremendous physical and emotional toll of pursuing his cause. Amongst his parliamentary allies was the crafty Charles, Lord Fox, played by the perfectly cast Michael Gambon, who gets all the best lines and delivers them with zest. Albert Finney also co-stars as John Newton, the former slave ship captain turned abolitionist minister (and composer of the hymn which titles the film).

Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour makes his film acting debut as freed slave and abolition activist Oloudah Equiano. A vocalist of worldwide stature, Youssou N’Dour may also be familiar to jazz listeners for his appearance on Manu Dibango’s Wakafrika album and his own The Guide (Wommat) release, which featured Branford Marsalis. In a small but important role, he shows undeniable screen presence. Based on Grace, it would be great to see him in larger roles. Publishing colleagues may also enjoy the scene of Equiano’s book signing (if only more of our events were as successful).

Youssou N’Dour also contributed to the soundtrack, but by and large it consists of orchestral themes composed David Arnold. It is effective providing emotional cues, but at times transparently manipulative.

If not absolutely perfect (too many flashbacks), Grace is beautifully crafted and boasts a strong cast. Co-produced by the remarkably sane Hollywood star Patricia Heaton, Amazing Grace releases in New York on February 23rd, scheduled to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the passage of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery bill. It is worth checking out.