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Amazing Grace

How Sweet the Sound

"Amazing Grace" is a song that has an undeniable emotional resonance. The song is nearly ubiquitous at funerals. Even if the lyrics are foreign to you, it’s likely the melody will strike a haunting and inspiring chord. It’s a song that is inextricably bound to the abolition of the slave trade and the civil rights movement. The power of this song has been co-opted as a rallying cry for countless.

In Amazing Grace, director Michael Apted sheds light on antislavery pioneer, William Wilberforce, whose life arguably was the personification of the song. The film opens with a powerful scene in which Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) exits his carriage in a driving rainstorm to stop another driver from beating his weary, rain soaked horse. Right away you are inspired by Wilberforce’s fierce humanitarianism.

We meet Wilberforce at the nadir of his quest to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Beaten, haggard, and terribly ill, Wilberforce’s faith is shaken and waning. Gruffudd is the embodiment of mental and physical fatigue and does a convincing job of conveying the incredible weight Wilberforce carries with him.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how the weight Wilberforce carries has become so heavy. The slave trade was the foundation of the British Empire’s economy in the 18th century and his ardent efforts to put an end to the slave trade was viewed as blasphemous by many in the Parliament. In these flashbacks, Gruffudd gives us a passionate, fiery, and indefatigable Wilberforce. Ultimately, both versions of Wilberforce are compelling.

The story itself is no less compelling. Wilberforce and his small collective of rebels have taken on an enormously important but enormously Sisyphean task in shutting down the slave trade. Director Michael Apted does an excellent job bringing an air of authenticity to virtually every facet of the film. The debate scenes in Parliament are particularly well rendered.

A pivotal character that serves to inspire this quest is John Newton (wonderfully played by Albert Finney). Newton is a former slave trader turned minister and abolitionist who penned "Amazing Grace". One of the most engaging and poignant scenes in Amazing Grace takes place in Newton’s church as Newton speaks of the "20,000 ghosts" that haunt him every day. Finney is brilliant in his turn as Newton.

In Amazing Grace we have a film that to a large degree lives up to the haunting and inspiring song written by John Newton. Michael Apted assembled a wonderful cast, Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) contributed a solid script, and Ioan Gruffudd and Albert Finney round things out with a couple of excellent performance.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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