A Film by Micheal Apted
Written by Steven Knight
The new film from director Michael Apted, with a screenplay by Steven Knight, is a biographical sketch of the work of English reformer William Wilberforce, and his nearly two-decade-long struggle to outlaw slavery in the British Empire. With an historically and morally important issue at its core and a fascinating group of people involved, the film ought to be compelling viewing, but, sad to say, it is unable to fulfill the promise of its premise.
Apted's body of work is heavily weighted toward television. He started his career in the early 1960s as a director working in British dramatic series. His reputation-making documentary series Seven Up and its several sequels following the same group of seven-year olds at seven year intervals through four decades of their lives was ground-breaking, He'd been working for more than twelve years before he made his first feature film, and it wasn't until 1980 that he made a name for himself in the US with the Academy Award winning Coal Miner's Daughter.
He can better be described as a journeyman director rather than an "auteur." His work is widely varied in subject and style, from Gorky Park and Gorillas in the Mist,: The Diane Fossey Story to Nell and Enigma . While all of it that I have seen shows a skilled hand and mastery of the technical aspects of visual story-telling, there isn't that stamp of personal vision and concerns that can be characterized as "auterurist."
Although this technical approach can work very well with documentary and with well-constructed scripts, it doesn't promote the kind of focus that can create coherence in a less well-developed story. In large part, this is where Amazing Grace stumbles. Its wide ranging story, that spans more than fifteen years and includes a cast of more than a dozen major characters, needs a kind of intense focus from the director's chair to bring it all together in an emotionally resonant way.
With a script that is disjointed by long flashbacks, dream sequences and sudden jumps of several years, the film falls into one of the common traps of biographical/historical films mentioned here before: it focuses on the relatively impersonal sequences of events - plot - rather than the much more interesting and compelling transformative effect events have on individuals. it tells us "what" happened, but it doesn't adequately address the more interesting question of "why."
There's no catastrophic single cause of this unsatisfactory outcome. Rather it's an accumulation of small failings. For one thing, the images on the screen are often much too beautifully "period" - too "Merchant-Ivory." While that look is fully appropriate in some scenes - of British Aristocracy at work and play in Parliament or at their Country Houses - to have Wilberforce's emotionally wrenching visit to a slave ship lit and photographed with painterly care strikes a painfully wrong note and makes the whole thing seem contrived.
Similarly a heavy-handed, clichéd and manipulative approach to the score, with down-tempo woodwinds signifying depression and defeat and swelling strings indicating uplift, indicates a lack of confidence in the inherent drama of the story being told that distracts from it rather than enhancing it.
In addition, Apted makes the mistake of trying to tell us what he should be showing us. He has several characters recount the suffering of the Africans kidnapped into slavery. They have obviously been deeply moved by what they have witnessed, but for the film audience, this is second-hand evidence - not one of the things film does best. His one attempt to give us a visual reference is in a montage framed as a dream sequence early in the film, but this scene is so stylized and generic that it has no emotional power.
In one of the film's most visceral moments, the historical character Oloudaqh Equiano, a former slave who escaped to England and wrote a powerful memoir of his abduction and enslavement shows Wilberforce the owner's "brand" burned into the flesh of his chest, but most of even Equiano's testimony is reduced to "talk."
By contrast, a short sequence in Steven Speilberg's Amistad, where a kidnapped African mother throws herself and her child over the rail of the ship rather than submit to a fate she understands as literally worse than death illustrates the desperate agony of the victims of the slave trade far more powerfully than all the tortured conversation in Amazing Grace.
Interestingly, just as Wilberforce, while piquing and irritating the conscience of the British Government for many years, was unable to get the compelling overwhelming message of the vast, inhuman cruelty of the slave trade across in a way that would actually reach his colleagues emotionally and lead them to change their behavior, Apted is largely unable to fill in the outlines of Wilberforce's story with either the man's personal "charisma" or the dynamics of his struggle with his long years of frustration and failure in a way that is as moving it seems it ought to be.
A lot of this failure also lies in the basic screenplay, which chooses exposition over illustration - a choice that rarely makes for powerful film-making. Screenwriter Knight - whose only previous feature effort released in the US, Dirty Pretty Things, was very well-reviewed - like Apted comes from a background of writing for British serial television. If he made the transition successfully in his previous effort - which I haven't seen - some of the weakness here is characteristic of television writing, where the power of images on the big screen is subordinated to the 'talking-head" format that works better on the small screen.
Moreover, Knight tries to "tell the whole story," loading us up with details, and leaping from point to point and character to character in the historical narrative, instead of following the simpler, more direct (but admittedly much less "complete") thread of the central characters' emotional self-discovery and transformation - which has the potential to be the most evocative part of the story.
One can't effectively compress a detailed historical study into an hour and fifty minutes. It's been tried - unsuccessfully - many times. Yet it's that same old snare in which Apted and Knight are stuck. Knight's script fails to effectively evoke the inner lives of the characters, and Apted's direction is unable to provide a point-of-view, passion or insight that can compensate.
But it's not for lack of trying. As I said above, Apted is a very capable technician, and from that point of view this is a well-made film. He has assembled a fine cast , although he allows some of his actors - particularly Albert Finney as the repentant Slave Ship Captain turned priest who was apparently a pivotal influence on Wilberforce - a bit more leash than is good for them.
Ioan Gruffud plays Wilberforce with a mixture of earnestness and insecurity that helps to explain why his campaign took so long to succeed, but at the same time undermines his position as the "leader" of the movement. His good looks and sincerity are attractive, but they don't explain how or why he became the champion and spokesperson for a position that was as morally unassailable as it was politically unpopular. Gruffud struggles to reconcile Wilberforce's reported charisma with his limited effectiveness in putting his point across and his personal struggle with uncertainty and ill-health, but he never manages to bring all the character's facets into coherence.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wilberforce's personal friend and colleague - sometimes supporter, sometimes obstacle - William Pitt - at 24 Britain's youngest Prime Minister ever. With a much simpler, more clearly drawn character, Cumberbatch manages to catch the mixture of ambition, moral sensibility, idealism and pragmatic self-interest so pronounced in the writings of English-educated politicians of the time - including our own Founding Fathers.
Rufus Sewell, as the wild-eyed preacher Thomas Clarkson, brings the kind of energy and intensity to the role that is missing elsewhere. Michael Gambon, as the Conservative former PM Charles Fox, whose decision to support Wilberforce is one of the turning points in the effort contributes a dependably skillful cameo.
Ciaran Hinds, as Lord Tareleton, leader of the pro-slavery faction, and Toby Jones, as the Duke of Clarence, son of King George III whose treasury was greatly enriched by slave-trade profits, are suitably selfish and unprincipled to serve as the villains of the piece, but one of the film's real shorcomings is it's failure to explore the mind-set of the "opposition" in any depth - to help us understand how denial and self- deception by otherwise "decent" men, in the service of perceived self-interest can allow great evil to arise and flourish.
Finney gives a strong performance as John Newton, the reformed Slave Trader and author of the revered hymn which became the abolitionist's theme-song and from which the film takes its name. But Apted is unable or unwilling to restrain him, and he ends up chewing the scenery in a way that detracts from the film as a whole.
Amazing Grace is a movie with noble intentions - to give well-deserved recognition to a little-known historical figure who stood up tirelessly for what he believed was right, and did in fact help to change the world for the better. It is only unfortunate that Apted, while getting the story told, has not managed to make it as momentous and emotionally engaging as it has every right to be.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.