Due to the vagaries of the English education system, I actually didn’t study History beyond the age of 14. Up until that point, we had ‘done’ Mesopotamia, Iron Age man, Henry VIII, The Industrial Revolution and WW2. As you can see, there are some fairly significant gaps in my historical insight: I’m not sure if I should really admit in public that I do attempt to shore up my pitiful knowledge by watching films such as ‘Amazing Grace‘.
This 2006 production, directed by Michael Apted, tells the story of William Wilberforce, the 18th Century parliamentarian who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. ‘Wilber’ is played by Ioan Gruffudd, supported by an impressive British cast including Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney and Rufus Sewell. Romola Garai plays Wilberforce’s wife – you may recognise her as ‘Sugar’ from the TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White.
The passage of Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade was not a smooth one, as the interests of merchants were not best served by the prevention of slave trading, particularly in coastal port towns. Despite first-hand accounts of the cruelty of the trade, from both former slaves and sailors, together with petitions and the input of anti-slavery activists, there was still opposition to the Bill. It was not until 1792 that Parliament passed a Bill calling for ‘gradual abolition’.
Incidentally, the film takes its name from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ which was penned by John Newton and published in 1779. Newton was himself the captain of a slave ship and although he continued to invest in the trade after his retirement, he did eventually denounce the inhumanity of slave trading. Wilberforce looked to Newton for spiritual guidance and also used Newton’s accounts of the slave trade to support his political campaign.
With its combination of classical actors, the great oratory and period setting, this film felt to me more like an elaborate stage production. As with most period dramas, I am always impressed by the attention to detail that goes into depicting the clothes, decor and customs of a bygone era and ‘Amazing Grace‘ was no exception. Maybe not a stunning film, but definitely interesting and worth watching. Added to which, I also supplemented my meagre historical background, which can’t be a bad thing.