Amazing Grace DVD: Review By Dodd

An engaging film about the politics of slavery and abolition
  • OVERALL
    3.5
    GREAT
  • Feature
  • Extras
  • Replay Value
THE GOOD
An engaging film about the politics of slavery and abolition
THE BAD
The film drags a bit at times
THE FEATURE
Over the years I've seen countless films that depict racism and the slave trade. Generally such movies do so with effective shock tactics. Sometimes the best way for audiences today to understand the pain and torture endured by African slaves is to witness how they were treated. So many films on the topic have been Afro-centric because the only way to possibly understand the story is through the eyes of those who are black rather than the white colonialists and traders who had not a drop of humanity or sympathy in their body. However, the recent film Amazing Grace has relied on the opposite by focusing on white characters throughout a story about the abolition of slavery. This actually works to a certain extent.

Ioan Gruffudd plays real life figure William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a member of the House of Commons and one of the few white people to actually oppose slavery. In the late 1700s, he stood before his fellow politicians to state his feelings on slavery in a room full of slave-owning men who did not see the pain in the eyes of their investments. With the backing of his best friend and Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict C*mberbatch), he eventually gained support from influential members of the house such as Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) only to be shot down like yesterday's news.

Without spoiling the turn of events in the film while simultaneously acknowledging that it is history, it is easy to assume that Wilberforce made a comeback after this defeat, and managed to develop effective techniques that would later hinder the slave trade. This film chronicles his young political career into his old age, and how this man who was unwilling to quit became a key player in the fight for equality.

Amazing Grace is a surprisingly good film that proves it is possible to make a film about slavery without even showing slaves. Most of the film takes place in the House of Commons where Wilberforce fights off the debates from pro-slavery political figures. The film is more about the intellectual aspects of slavery and abolition rather than the emotional aspects. Wilberforce does have his moments where he yanks at the heartstrings of England's wealthy to get his point across, but these are not really tear-jerking moments. Instead they demonstrate the strategies of this underdog, and how he managed to effectively persuade the white wealthy whose slaves were a pivotal part of their everyday lives.

If there is anything not so great about this film it is the snail's pace of the storytelling. I didn't necessarily nod off, but there are moments of political banter that could have been omitted for the sake of progressing the plot. I even have a thing for talky movies, but this really could have been summarized in 90 minutes rather than nearly two hours. Should this be the epic life story of Wilberforce's life, then it would be a whole different story. However, this film is in the moment of a specific historical event, and this could have been confined to a smaller runtime.

Jumping back to the higher points of the film, the performances are stellar. Gruffudd is typically not leading man material, but he is a strong presence here as a man who won't quit. What is even better are the appearances by veterans. Michael Gambon is a treat as usual and the great Albert Finny is unforgettable as slave ship captain-turned-preacher, John Newton, who penned the song Amazing Grace based on his regret for being a sadistic bigot.
THE EXTRAS
How Sweet the Sound

This is a fitting companion piece for the film. Rather than having the cast B.S. about their fun little tricks on the set, the featurette is more about the real life events. It is a bit heavy on the film clips, but it is still enlightening to have everyone discuss their characters and how they related to history.

Finding Freedom

I couldn't help but feel a sense of inconsistency between this piece and the film. They are both about abolitionism, but this is a 7-minute PSA hosted by a teenager visiting the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. This feels a bit rushed and more for younger audiences who want to be educated in slavery. However, I don't see the film itself attracting younger viewers.

Commentary

There is a wise choice in commentary here by putting director Michael Apted and star Ioan Gruffudd together. Gruffudd is pretty talkative and into the track and plays great back-up for director Apted. Since so much of making this film is about historical accuracy, that is the popular topic from scene to scene. These guys really keep things alive for anyone interested in supplemental info.

The DVD also includes a performance of the title song, and interactive DVD-ROM learning tools that cover the film's subject.
THE VIDEO
Widescreen. Director Michael Apted has an eye for the past. The look of the film feels authentic as it emphasizes the pristine wealthy and the less fortunate who are abused.
THE AUDIO
5.1 Dolby Digital. Composer David Arnold composes the music that is very emotional and effective. It could almost be mistaken for the work of James Horner, and I mean this as a compliment.
THE PACKAGE
Once again, I didn't receive a case because for some reason critics are cold and soulless movie-haters who DON'T want to add movies to their proud collections. Come on now!
THE FINAL WORD
Amazing Grace is a pleasant and attention-grabbing film that kept me intrigued for the most part. I can't say that it worked on the levels that really get to me, but it is clever in its endeavor to emphasize the politics of slavery rather than the emotional pain. It is very rare to find a film on the subject that takes such a different approach. This historical drama is definitely worth a rental.

Questions? Comments? Just want to talk movies? Drop me a line at dodd@movieweb.com

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