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Wilberforce film points to task of modern abolitionists

Amazing Grace: 118 minutes. Rated: PG. Director: Michael Apted. Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, website

Film points to task of modern abolitionistsThis year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain. It was a hard-won victory for the abolitionists, who, under the leadership of young politician William Wilberforce, endured 20 years of frustration in an unsympathetic parliament before a bill banning slavery was finally passed.

Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian and protégé of former slave trader turned pastor John Newton, was motivated in this quest by his deep religious faith. But Michael Apted, the director of the Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace, insists that in telling this story he was more interested in politics than in preaching and prayer.

'To me, what’s exciting about Wilberforce is that he was a man who had spiritual beliefs, and was very uncompromising about them, but nonetheless lived in the political world and had a lot of political acumen', says Apted.

'I didn’t want to diminish the faith of Wilberforce; that’s crucial to his character. But I wanted to make the centre of the film about politics, and then use whatever else we need of his life to illuminate who he is.'

Apted already has a brief but notable track record in the realm of biopics, having previously helmed ‘true stories’ such as The Coalminer’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist. He admits that when it comes to condensing a person’s life into a film, a degree of artistic licence is necessary.

'All you can do is honour the spirit of the character and the spirit of the times,” he says. “What helped us with Wilberforce is that we didn’t treat it as a straight biopic. We messed around with time and put the political event in the middle of it.'

'I’ve been looking for years to do a film about politics', he continues. 'I can’t stand that politics generally gets a bad rap, although I completely understand that position. I was looking for a story that threw a different light on political action; showed it in a valuable, heroic, light. It was a very hard to find anything.'

Film points to task of modern abolitionists'And then this film about Wilberforce came to me, and at the centre of it was this anti-slave trade story. I thought, well, this is a great opportunity — maybe this is what I’ve been looking for.'

The film captures this key period of Wilberforce’s political career with a sometimes burdensome sense of romanticism. Luckily, the presence of Gruffudd as Wilberforce, plus seasoned veterans such as Finney (as Newton) and Gambon (as Whig politician Lord Fox), lends a much-needed sense of gravitas to a sometimes overwrought script.

And while the action takes place in a time long past, Apted is in no doubt his film has a great deal to say to today’s world. In fact, he suggests that some scenes bear a striking resemblance to the political climate of recent years.

He cites a scene in which Wilberforce’s long-time friend, Prime Minister William Pitt the younger(Cumberbatch), warns Wilberforce that he will consider disagreement to be sedition.

'That’s exactly what people like Bush were saying to justify going to Iraq', says Apted. 'After September 11, Bush would say if you oppose American foreign policy to go into the Middle East, it’s seditious. That’s rubbish — it’s ridiculous to say if you oppose someone then you’re disloyal or traitorous.'

Second Opinion

Urban Cinefile

The cause for which Wilberforce is fighting is such a powerful element that the film is also like a political thriller..... That Apted has cast well is beyond question: the older cast represent some of the cream of English actors, and the younger ones also deliver terrific performances.
– Andrew L. Urban, Urban Cin

Despite an emphasis on politics, the religious elements of Amazing Grace are potent. Interestingly, Apted is currently in pre-production as director of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third film in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise — another story with a strong religious theme. Still, Apted insists he’s not necessarily drawn to religious films.

'My challenge with both films is to get a balance, so that they will appeal to a large audience', he says. 'That was crucial for the understanding of the Wilberforce character; and with Lewis, there’s a universality about it. It’s not just about Christianity.'

Apted is not the only one relying on the wide appeal of the message in Amazing Grace. Social justice organisations around the world, under the umbrella of the Stop the Traffik campaign, will use the film to put a spotlight on the modern trade in human trafficking — which, along with drugs and arms, is one of the three biggest illegal trades in the world.

'There’s no point sitting there and saying ‘Great, Wilberforce defeated slavery — yippee!’' agrees Apted. 'Slavery is with us today — more powerfully than it was in Wilberforce’s time. Slavery’s always with us, and we should be alive to it; it isn’t something that arises and is solved, and we can all get on with our lives.'

'To me, the most interesting thing about Wilberforce is his courage; he really hung on and never gave up. He gave many years of his life to this cause and [through perseverance] he pulled it off. He was a man of principle, and I think that’s a good message to be sending out in the world.'

Tim Kroenert is the Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He was previously a staff writer and film reviewer with The Salvation Army's national editorial department. His articles have been published by Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and the speculative fiction review website ASif!.




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