25 February 2007

Amazing Grace: Really a Real Movie

Hooray! Three cheers, at least, maybe four or five, how about half a dozen, for Amazing Grace! I am amazed! I am very impressed. I loved this film. It’s got great acting (led by the very good-looking Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce), gorgeous costumes, intelligent & catchy & well-paced screenplay (by Steven Knight), delightful & nicely peripheral love story, & all the passion of a man on fire to do good—on fire with the Spirit of God burning him up from the inside out. It’s directed in a lively, sometimes confusing present—flashback—future style by Michael Apted, dancing between powerful public speeches to luscious private moments: the Prime Minister & his best-friend MP racing barefoot through the garden; the beautiful red-headed Barbara Spooner (played by Romola Garai) snorting into her dinner because of a private joke about botany; John Newton (Albert Finney) wearing sackcloth as he mops the stone floor of his very chilly- & Medieval-looking chapel. Suffering is not held at bay; the stench & sweat & death of slavery ripple painfully underneath at all times.

Perhaps Hollywood is finally getting the message that there is an audience for beautiful, lush, challenging, wholesome, edifying films with messages of faith & human rights. Or maybe “we” are finally realizing that when such a movie comes out, “we” should jump to acclaim it, & not hide our heads & whine that it’s got some foul language or a bit of décolletage or not enough gospel, but rather applaud it enthusiastically as an important & artistic film. Because, my friends, that’s what we’ve got here. Amazing Grace is all of that and more. Most importantly: It’s a real movie.

Not some greeting-card sappy feel-good Bible cartoon. A real movie that real people are seeing & reviewing. & it’s a movie you need to see. Go and see it! Now! Don’t even stop to read the rest of this review! Go & see it first, then come back & leave your comments here. This is still the first weekend it’s available in many theatres, & the box office results from this weekend will say a lot to the powers that be about how many more theatres will get it & whether “we” are watching & whether “we” have enough buying power to warrant the production of valuable cinema. Or whether slop & trash & smash will make the big bucks. This is an important film about a great guy, & it does an excellent job of embodying him in his everyday life, in his brilliant Parliamentarian career, & in his historical context. Britain comes to life, as does the multi-faceted question of the abolition of slaves. It doesn’t shy away from the economic complexities that made Wilberforce’s opponents more than straw men. It puts the entire question squarely into the Revolutionary atmosphere of the day, with its fears & its heady freedoms.

It’s not a perfect movie. Although I can’t for the life of me figure out why not. At first I thought it was because the audience never actually comes face-to-face with slavery. All the accounts are second-hand. But then again, that’s how it was for Wilberforce. He never saw the beatings, the starvation, the degradation. He heard about them, he saw the empty ships—& that was enough to move him to action! So that’s not it. I thought maybe it wasn’t a big enough budget—but I don’t see any cut corners. There’s a string quartet playing Hayden, the evolution of wig styles over two decades, crowds in London streets, infuriating debates in a packed Parliament; I don’t feel anything is missing.

So maybe it’s a perfect movie after all. It’s certainly a movie I will watch again, & show my students, & recommend to my friends, & try to incorporate into my life as new passion. Passion for the integration of public & private life, passion for the unity of faith & action, passion for quality of both art & message. Hooray!

Useful links:
Official Movie Site
Articles in World Magazine
Wikipedia biography
BBC History
Interview with the director


Iambic Admonit said...

Here's an excellent article in Books & Culture.

Rosie Perera said...

I went to see this on opening night in Redmond, Washington. I was expecting a rather paltry audience for a historical movie that was recommended through the Christian grapevine (accompanied by pleadings to go see it opening weekend so the box office earnings would be good enough to warrant showing it on more screens). So I was blown away when I walked in five or ten minutes early to an already packed theater. Maybe I don't go to opening nights often enough (or ever), but I've never seen such a full multi-plex cinema for anything!

I had read a review of it beforehand in the Seattle Times which called the film "well-intentioned but often pedantic." The reviewer said, "The storytelling is at times effortful, but ultimately the film works as a history lesson." So I was expecting something on the level of a Focus on the Family documentary about Bonhoeffer or something. Nice for homeschoolers to show their kids at home but not big screen production quality. I was pleasantly surprised. I looked for pedantic storytelling, and I guess it was somewhat history-book like at times. But it was only "pedantic" in comparison to the excitement level of typical Hollywood blockbusters. The cinematography, costuming, and sets were top notch. The acting was brilliant. John Newton's character was a wonderful addition. I loved his performance at the end of his life as an old blind man, reaching out to feel his friend Wilberforce's face which he could no longer see, and then saying the powerful words from his hymn (which the movie was named after): "I once was blind, but now I see!" So ironic and yet perfect for that moment in the film.

The ending of the film was also brilliant: a simple scrolling text telling us how Wilberforce lived out the rest of his years and when he died, and then a shot of a pipe band playing "Amazing Grace" (which is a common sight at funerals of public figures, so you know it's Wilberforce's funeral we're witnessing, but we never see a coffin or mourners -- we don't need to -- nice economy of storytelling). As we dolly backward from the single slowly walking piper, we move through the other standing members of the band, first drummers, then brass, then woodwinds (all on period instruments of course). And as the camera moves backward to reveal these instruments, the soundtrack changes gradually along with it so we hear the right mix of instruments. Really quite well done, I thought.

The final treat was that the audience I was watching it with applauded after the movie. Rarely anymore do I hear movie audiences applauding, because of course the actors can't hear the applause. But it was a sign to each other that we loved the movie and were giving it a collective "thumbs up."

One of the few negative things I can think of was that the use of the theme song "Amazing Grace" was a bit cloying in the wedding of William and Barbara. And perhaps one had gotten a bit tired of the cliché of Amazing Grace by the end of the movie. If the song weren't used so often in American public life these days, it wouldn't have had that effect on me, though. Finally, the deathbed scene of William Pitt saying to Wilberforce "I wish I had your faith" was a bit overwrought. It was a tear-jerking moment (I cried when he died), and I didn't think that was necessary.

I'd have to see the movie again to give you the exact quotes and to be certain of this, but I could have sworn there were at least two or maybe three points in the movie where I felt the film was making a subtle but direct political commentary on the current situation with Bush and the U.S. and the Iraq War. One such quote was something to the effect of "how many more of our young men must we send to die?" (in the American Revolution). Maybe I'm just reading too much into it, but it wouldn't be beyond the capability of a good screenwriter or director to speak to his current audience in a way that perhaps no future audiences will understand.

Here are some more links:
* Christianity Today's special section on the film.
* Rotten Tomatoes links to a bunch of reviews.
* Internet Movie Database (IMDB) listing. See particularly the collection of very positive user comments. But do note the couple of negative comments titled "Falling out of 'Grace'" and "Inspiring but inaccurate" which point out some historical weaknesses in the film.

Rosie Perera said...

Here's another good review of the movie: Dangers, toils and snares (Russ Kuykendall, Comment, March 9, 2007).

Rosie Perera said...

Yet another link to a useful site, the Faith & Film Critics Circle, which has links to more reviews.

Jana Lee said...

Just wanted to let you know that I went to see Amazing Grace last night...and yes, it was very good! I thought it was great acting and was very realistic. A few parts got a little long, but overall it was really good. I never knew all those things about Wilberforce and the whole abolition of the slave trade.

P.S. Now do I get my point of extra credit??? ;)

Iambic Admonit said...

Jana Lee:

I'm very glad you went to see the movie, & thanks for posting a comment here. Is that all you have to say, though? Surely you have some more profound or detailed thoughts?

Yes, you'll get that extra point....

Maximus Doom said...

It's worth seeing! I too saw this movie this weekend. Hmmm...I guess I come to this movie from a different direction. Yes, it was good and good to see a movie approach the subject without "the horrors of slavery" slammed into your face. But perhaps that absence is what failed to convince me or give me a real foundation for their convictions to see this cause through. It seemed to be missing something; but I cannot put a finger on exactly what it was. I would have anticipated more social pressure and family threats or something. I particularly enjoyed how well most of the characters fit together, their convincing friendships. Yes, at least it was a real movie crammed with great performances. I really enjoyed how two people found each other against all the odds and stayed together through what must have been difficult times. It's always good to see the family prevail in tact, strong and happy. Evenmoreso; it was a movie of great quotes. It is certainly a family -friendly movie not to be horded by a tiny band of homeschoolers and bible thumpers (and I mean that in the best of ways).

Kate said...

A great film! Amazing Grace is a very human story. The characters, and their joys and struggles are all very real and well developed. Technically the film is excellent: the acting is great, and the screenplay real and believable.
I like how it isn't your typical hero movie where, "Guy fulfills his dream and wins a medal, a title etc." Yes, William Wilberforce did fulfill his dream, but it was a dream of love: he wasn't doing it for himself, or to satisfy his own interests. There is depth to the movie. W.W. dedicated his life to the cause, and he certainly suffered for it. (And wherever there's love, there's suffering.)
A side note though: As I watched it, I felt as if I had seen it before! There are plenty of other movies that tell a "human" story of love and heroism, like Wilberforce's.
All things considered, I would definitely recommend Amazing Grace.