Praise Apted! Abolitionist Drama Amazes

Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, from a screenplay by Steven Knight, turns out to be blessed with inspirational nobility and comic eccentricity—the former provided by an edifying narrative, and the latter by a colorful cast of characters—to bring it to emotional fruition. As the 200th anniversary approached for the slave trade’s abolition in 1807, Michael Apted, currently president of the Directors Guild of America, was asked by Bristol Bay Productions to direct a film about William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the Parliamentary leader of the British abolitionist movement—which is not as well known to Americans as their own abolitionist movement, which, in turn, has seldom found representation in Hollywood movies for fear of offending Southern audiences.

As the title of the film indicates, Mr. Apted’s project also involves the parallel story of the writing of the famous Protestant hymn by the guilt-ridden former slave-ship captain, John Newton, who turned to serving the church to redeem his tormented soul. If my prose turns somewhat purple on this occasion, it is because I was genuinely moved by the hymn’s power in the film to combine Christian faith with a worthy social cause at a time in our lives when many of the ills of the world are being attributed to religious fanaticism (in lands including our own).

Mr. Apted has painstakingly assembled a remarkably gifted cast to enliven his and Mr. Knight’s story, beginning with Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce—who was elected to the House of Commons at the age of 21 in 1780—and is shown from the outset as a frenzied youth given to meditating on his spiritual conflicts while sitting on the wild grasses of his vast estate. He is urged by his closest friend, William Pitt (played with equal youthfulness by newcomer Benedict Cumberbatch)—at age 24, the youngest British prime minister in the nation’s history—to champion the cause of the abolition of the slave trade, and eventually of slavery itself.

Wilberforce did not marry Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) until 1797, when he was 37, in a whirlwind courtship facilitated by her outspoken support for the abolition movement. The film doesn’t extend the full length of their happy and fruitful 35-year marriage (until his death in 1833, three days after the Abolition of Slavery Bill passed in the House of Commons at the third reading). Wilberforce left behind six children from his union with Barbara, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Mr. Apted compresses much of this personal history with one lyrical passage of Wilberforce romping in the fields with his first son and namesake, William, and a stirring concluding passage of the funeral rendition of “Amazing Grace” by a single bagpipe and a full military band outside Westminster Abbey. In between are many rowdy, bewigged scenes in and out of Parliament, emblazoned by a covey of marvelous character actors, notably Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox, an early convert to the cause; Ciaran Hinds as Lord Tarleton, a demagogic antagonist; Toby Jones as the sly slave-owning Duke of Clarence; and Bill Patterson as the double-dealing Lord Dundas.

Albert Finney delivers two bravura scenes as John Newton, a powerful influence on Wilberforce in his decision to enter the hurly-burly of the political arena, rather than seek refuge in the relative tranquility of the church. Rufus Sewell plays Thomas Clarkson, the roving firebrand of the abolitionist movement, going so far as to advocate a people’s revolution against the British Crown in emulation of the French Revolution across the Channel. This was much to the horror of Wilberforce, ever loyal to King George III, though everyone there, as here, knew that he was mad. Indeed, George III—a much-maligned monarch in American history books—was a decisive behind-the-scenes influence in keeping Pitt in power despite his many unpopular reforms and abolitionist sympathies.

The Grammy-winning Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour plays the crucial role of Oloudah Equiano, who wrote a best-selling memoir of his extraordinary experiences as a self-liberated slave. He joined Wilberforce’s movement as a firsthand witness to the cruelties of the slave trade, which Wilberforce could only imagine vicariously from his privileged perspective. Together with the resourceful Clarkson, Equiano provided the documentary evidence that shifted the balance in the popular struggle between the abolitionists and the powers that be.

The relevance to our time is made clear by the film’s emphasis on the then-new forms of public persuasion, like pamphleteering and badge-wearing, long before the bloggers and the Internet revolutionized mass communication. When a huge cylin der of paper is unfurled on the floor of the House of Commons with 300,000 signatures on a petition denouncing the slave trade—with cries of “mob rule” by the defenders of the status quo—the effect is electric. When Lord Charles Fox rises dramatically from his seat to add his own signature to the petition, the unprecedented bonding of the people with their Parliamentary representatives is complete.

The wealth of biographical material from the stormy lives and times of Wilberforce, Pitt and Newton alone can barely be hinted at in a feature-length film. Hence, Wilberforce’s love of animals is randomly reflected in a few moments of picking up strays in a variety of species—hardly sufficient to convey the lifelong commitment that made him one of the founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the RSPCA). The primitive level of medical care and diagnosis is suggested by the untimely death of Pitt (1759-1806) in the midst of his second term as prime minister, from what seems to have been nothing more than a perforated ulcer from previously misguided “cures” using wine. Still, Mr. Apted, Mr. Knight and all their collaborators on both sides of the camera can take pride in a humanist hymn for our eyes and ears, at once lucid and lyrical to an exemplary degree.

Out of Africa

Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory (Indigènes), from a screenplay by Olivier Lorelle(in French with English subtitles), has been nominated as Algeria’s official entry as Best Foreign-Language Film in the 79th Academy Awards. It has already received a rapturous reception in France, where it has struck a historical nerve with its belated recognition of the sacrifices of 130,000 North African colonial soldiers (or indigènes) in helping liberate the “fatherland” from the hitherto impregnable German Army.

The action begins in 1943 in Morocco, where an army of indigènes is being assembled for the eventual invasion of Italy and France in 1944. The fictional story follows the varying fortunes of four soldiers—Abdelkader Bellaïdie (Sami Bouajila), Saïd Otmari (Jamel Debbouze), Messaoud Souni (Roschdy Zem) and Yassir Allaoui (Samy Nacéri)—as they encounter various forms of discrimination from their French officers. These include the lack of promotions, the denial of leave, and on one occasion even the withholding of fresh tomatoes from the colonials so that an ample supply remains for the French troops.

Nonetheless, the indigènes remain loyal and fight bravely in battles in Italy, Provence and Alsace, taking heavy causalities while receiving little or no recognition or publicity. French President Jacques Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, were reportedly so moved by a special screening at the Élysée Palace that Mr. Chirac ordered an end to a decades-old system of inequality by bringing the lagging pensions of war veterans from former colonies up to the level of their French counterparts. It is one of the rare instances I can recall when a film had such an immediate beneficial impact.

Praise Apted! Abolitionist Drama Amazes