Film review: Amazing Grace
109 minutes; Cert. PG
Ioan Gruffudd (William Wilberforce), Albert Finney (John Newton) and Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt)
Amazing Grace is about Wilberforce’s 20-year political struggle to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire, culminating in the parliamentary Act of 25 March 1807.
Ioan Gruffudd portrays Wilberforce as a man of conviction persevering against all odds. He is a religious man, concerned to obey the voice of God. Convincing testimony to this fact comes from no less than his dying friend, William Pitt – ‘I wish I had your faith, Wilber’.
However, Amazing Grace nearly belies its name by failing to explore Wilber’s conversion experience. That had come about years before as a result of a European tour with evangelical Isaac Milner, when together they had read Philip Doddridge’s Rise & progress of religion in the soul.
Troubled in conscience about remaining in politics, Wilberforce seeks counsel of erstwhile slave trader John Newton. Newton’s shrewd advice is to stay put.
Surprisingly and inaccurately, the film has Newton the evangelical clergyman wearing a coarse woollen garment and mopping a church floor in a monkish act of penance. But Finney authentically quotes Newton’s immortal words: ‘I am a great sinner but Christ is a great Saviour’.
Abolition is planned by the small group that meet within Wilberforce’s own house and then argued for in the eighteenthcentury House of Commons. This focus perhaps explains The Times’ comment (21 March) that Amazing Grace is a ‘historical drama of a genteel variety’, for the film indeed adopts the delicate approach to an indelicate subject.
There is little in the film of the savage barbarity of a slave ship’s ‘middle passage’ on the Atlantic, but, to be fair, had this been truly portrayed Amazing Grace could not have secured its PG rating and the film would have been less accessible.
I would not go as far as Chuck Colson, who wrote, ‘I was thrilled to the bone watching this “amazing” movie’. But, if Christians did seize the evangelistic opportunities it presented to discuss evangelical conversion’s ‘great change’ and the grace of Christ that filled Wilberforce’s life, something valuable will have been achieved.