Monday, March 19, 2007

More Than a Period Piece

Amazing Grace is one of those movies that, if you’re not careful, can sneak past without much notice or protest. Most people I’ve talked to haven’t even heard of the movie. It is truly unfortunate because I found this film to be quite the diamond in the rough.

Perhaps it is the title that scares even would-be supporters of the film to steer clear. Even though Christianity is supposedly a commercial hotspot right now after The Passion of the Christ, any time “Christian” movies (films that are produced by companies spawned out of the Christian subculture) actually find their way to theaters or the rental store, they are avoided like the plague by the bulk of the populace, because, well, let’s be honest, these movies just plain suck. I’m thinking of Left Behind, Omega Code, Hangman’s Curse and the like. Thankfully this film is not in that vein.

The title is derived from the famous hymn of course, but what you may not have realized is that this hymn was written by a former slave trader-turned pastor named John Newton, who also had a profound impact on a man named William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was the man who for years fought against the institution of slavery in the British parliament and was instrumental in its abolition long before America would follow suit. The film focuses on Wilberforce, the abolitionist, so like 2005’s Capote, is less a biography, than the chronicle of one aspect of a man’s life. It is an engrossing aspect, and the story is well written, directed and acted.

There are a couple of dinger moments. One exchange goes something to the effect of: “So you’re saying you found God?” And all us Christians respond in unison with Wilberforce, “I think He found me.” This kind of thing can be forgiven, though, because elsewhere, the writer, Steven Knight, crafts some really witty repartee, and is often downright profound.

Ioan Gruffudd gives an earnest and believable performance as Wilberforce, and Steven Knight, has infused this portrait of the man with nobility and at the same time frailty, ensuring that we not only root for him, but also identify with him. The supporting cast is peopled by the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds, and Albert Finney (character actors you will recognize, but probably won’t be able to place); all of whom turn in outstanding performances. Albert Finney is absolutely wonderful as Wilberforce’s mentor pastor John Newton.

Some have complained that there is not enough of the horror and atrocity of slavery actually depicted onscreen, and that perhaps the subject has been Disney-fied beyond recognition. But this movie is not seeking to be Amistad or Schindler's List, and to impose that expectation on the film is unfair. Again, the film centers on William Wilberforce the abolitionist, and in spite of its lack of visual aids, it recreates his own abhorrence for slavery very well.

One critic claimed that Wilberforce is not worthy of real heroism because he’s rich and retreats to his well-established estate when not fighting slavery. The writer must have forgotten that Wilberforce leaves his doors open to peasants who overrun his house in one scene. This is not the socially conscious hypocritical celebrity activist of the present, who villifies the president and then returns home to his mansion that dwarfs the president's and does nothing about the problem. This is a man whose rhetoric was not separated from his lifestyle, but whose whole life rang with cohesion.

This movie challenged me, and I think all Christians should watch it to remind us that while we are in this world, we need to be advocates of the truly downtrodden, because even with all our study of the Word, we often leave behind those numerous commands to care for the poor in favor other, more esoteric or advantageous propositions. I hope non-Christians watch the movie as well, to see that there have been great men of God who, though frail and weak like the rest of us, did more than just talk about love or prepare for eternity, but actually helped make this world a better place.

**** out of ****

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