Friday, February 23, 2007

Amazing Grace - Movie Review

Amazing Grace (2007)

Back in 1945, we like most of the free world were busy celebrating the end of WWII. Whew, that was tough on the nylons having all the boys back at once, but that’s another story. A lovely little stark melodrama came out from Warner Bros. It was called “Pride of the Marines” and starred three of our favorites: John Garfield, Eleanor Parker and Dane Clark. It concerned the real life drama of veteran Al Schmid, a GI blinded during the war who has an understandably tough time readjusting to civilian life. And why are we talking about a WWII GI drama when we’re supposed to be reviewing “Amazing Grace”, the latest film by Michael Apted? Well, they share two things in common. One, they are both fine melodramas featuring some well tuned performances. And two, they both suffer from what we like to call “Movie Marketing Mayhem”. Take a gander at the original trailer for “Pride of the Marines” over here. Wasn’t that sweet. Makes you feel all patriotic and rah-rah, don’t it? Only problem is that there are precious few moments concerning the war in the actual film, it focused on Al adjusting to being blind and attempting to overcome his physical challenges with the love and support of his friends. The trailer makes it seem like Eleanor Parker is about to storm a hill in Guam, for Christ’s sake.

Amazing Grace” is a film that we hesitated to see, since the ad campaign and previews promised us the backstory to the well known sing-a-long eponymous hymn. What the hymn “Amazing Grace” has to do with William Wilberforce’s decades long battle to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom is tangential at best and hardly the focus of this well made movie. So much for truth in advertising.

In 1789, British politician and philanthropist William Wilberforce made his first plea in the House of Commons to abolish the British slave trade. His impassioned speech fell on deaf ears, as many a Lord was hesitant to say the least to help end a trade that accounted for millions of pounds that filled their coffers. The rights of man be damned, there was money to make off those darkies! Throughout the next four decades (!), he would fight tirelessly to secure the rights of African slaves to be freed of their majesties shackles. When the law banning slavery in the U.K. finally passed, he would barely live to see it enacted. But the name of William Wilberforce would enter histories’ pages as that of a committed and passionately devoted man who put his money where his mouth was and deserved the accolades of his nation.

Ioan Gruffudd, that Welsh hotty known for blowing his horn stars as Wilberforce in a nicely played turn that demonstrates his fine capabilities as a leading man. We enjoyed his straightforward manner in approaching the character without sanctifying his actions or gazing starry eyed into the heavens. Here is a man whose struggle to achieve his life’s ambitions are paramount in his thoughts. His health and well being run a distant second and third.

As his potential love interest, Romola Garai cuts a very elegant figure in her luxurious finery courtesy of the very talented Oscar winning designer, Jenny Beavan. While Miss Garai remains rather an unknown stateside, she is no stranger to the costume drama with such notable work in: “Daniel Deronda”, “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Vanity Fair”. While she is certainly not the focus of the plot, she too has a natural way of filling out a corset and maintaining a strong presence throughout.

Two of our favorite young character actors also make their voices heard: Stephen Campbell Moore who was so delightful in his film debut in the very underrated “Bright Young Things”, does a fine turn as James Stephen, the voice of reason amidst the political chaos and the unprecedented harbinger of light at histories darkest hour.

And as the famous William Pitt the Younger, England’s youngest Prime Minister who led the country at the astonishingly green age of twenty four (!), the baroquely named Benedict Cumberbatch demonstrates his solid acting chops. We just came across Mr. Cumberbatch recently as the bumbling über-Geek in the surprisingly charming “Starter for 10” and find him to be quite the interesting young actor. We were more than pleased to see he was quite adept at handling the dramatic chores to be found in a “Wig Drama”.

As with any historical drama focusing on politics, there are ample roles for character actors that excel in the formal language and style of the day. Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Rufus Sewell and Michael Gambon all add a further notch of fine supporting turns as the politicos on both sides of the argument.

One of the more interesting cast members is famed Senegalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour who appears as Olaudah Equiano, the legendary former slave who helped promote the abolitionist movement with his bestselling autobiography of the time. If ever a brief role needed the heft and presence of a “star”, this one is it. While his screen time may be short, his image and charisma remains.

And finally, we arrive at the reason this film has such a lousy marketing campaign. Five time Oscar nominee, Albert Finney briefly appears as John Newton, the man who penned the endlessly appealing title song. As the famed former slaveship captain who repented his sins and fought alongside William Wilberforce in the cause to abolish the heinous crime against mankind, Finney may be the right choice in mind and body – but his role seems to be more of an afterthought to the proceedings. It’s as if the powers that be decided they could fill more theatre seats by milking the evergreen tune’s seemingly universal appeal over the actual storyline.

Which is a real shame, since “Amazing Grace” is a very solid piece of filmmaking from veteran director Michael Apted. It is hardly cutting edge or revolutionary in its storytelling, rather it is that rare breed of film. A stalwartly old fashioned piece of biopic that recalls the halcyon days of “1930s Studio Biographies”. This film may be historical in more than its subject matter. It would be equally at home alongside “The Life of Emile Zola” or “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet”. Which is certainly not a criticism on our part. For all the fun and zeal we feel watching a modern filmmaker test the boundaries of the medium, there surely must be room in today’s cinema for a well told tale illuminating one of histories darkest passages. “Amazing Grace” will not shake you out of your theatre seat with blazing visuals or salacious subject matter. Rather it will entertain and educate with a very fine cast of actors recreating a story that is innately dramatic. The fight to pursue the rights of man at the cost of overturning the set social hierarchy. It’s a courtroom drama told under the gaslight of a talented director that earns its praises. Bless you all!

Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Steven Knight

Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce
Stephen Campbell Moore as James Stephen
Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt the Younger
Nicholas Day as William Dolben
Albert Finney as John Newton
Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox
Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner
Georgie Glen as Hannah More
Ciarán Hinds as Lord Tarleton
Toby Jones as Duke of Clarence
Sylvestra Le Touzel as Marianne Thornton
Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano
Bill Paterson as Lord Dundas
Rufus Sewell as Thomas Clarkson
Jeremy Swift as Richard the Butler

Cinematography by Remi Adefarasin
Film Editing by Rick Shaine
Costume Design by Jenny Beavan
Original Music by David Arnold
Production Design by Charles Wood
Art Direction by David Allday and Matthew Gray
Set Decoration by Eliza Solesbury



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