Regret, remorse, repentance - hard to find the right word to describe the emotional and mental legacy of John Newton's years of slave trading. It's too easy to take pot shots at him and mock the man who wrote Amazing Grace because he didn't immediately see the reality of the evil under his nose and give up that involvement. But in this film Albert Finney captures with brilliant perceptivenes, the rough sentimentality, the emotional complexity, the sense even after decades that his part in the horrors of trans-Atlantic slavery compounded his unworthiness and self-loathing- so for me Newton and his tears of too late guilt was a crucial questioning presence in the film. Newton's portrayal adds a dimension of pathos to the reality of structural sin, is a counterpoint to the power of institutionalised inhumanity whose default mechanism is greed, and whose interest is to frustrate every attempt at rehumanising the way our world is, especially if the argument implies economic loss. The interests of the Crown in the revenue from the colonies meant that the link was easily made between the movement for abolition, and disloyalty, even sedition, aggravated by the war with France. Some of this complexity was worked into the film and prevents it from being a pious and politically naive hagiography.
So, the film Amazing Grace, (complete with pipe and wind band with drums at the end! - a blatant anachronism I greatly enjoyed without embarrassment!!) - was well acted, with a script that almost entirely, but not quite, avoids the cringeable, and includes just enough of the spiritual burden of Wilberforce the serious evangelical, to make explicit the connection between political activism and inner piety. The relational network between Wilberforce and Newton, and Pitt, and Foxe, and Clarkson and Stephen, was a convincing mixture of political expediency, moral concern and radical risk.
The almost entire white cast made me uncomfortable - yet I wonder how else to convey the sheer weight of the political argument that had to be won, and to portray the pervasive ignorance of the brutal realities linked indissolubly to national self-interest. The truth is, the presence of African people in the circles in which Wilberforce moved would be rare - and the moment in the film when he has the chance to win the freedom of a slave in a game of cards was a finely observed piece of moral theatre - wasted for me by him returning to the gambling den to sing Amazing Grace! I could understand the bewildered outrage of those whose tavern singing was silenced by a Russell Watson soundalike!
The love interest seemed to convey the cliche that behind every great man there is a stunning redhead! The moment in the film when she convinces Wilberforce to take up the fight again, and to marry her, seems to make that a historical hinge point - well, since it is a film for general release that will do a lot of good by bringing Wilberforce back to our attention, as Barry Norman might ask, 'And why not?'
I enjoyed this film. There is enough historical accuracy and detail to root it in the realities it tries to engage. At times it was very moving, and the scale of the issue, morally, spiritually and politically, is communicated with considerable and convincing care. Evangelicals were portrayed with just that amount of seriousness and involvement that seems justified by the facts - by the way the cameo portrayal of Hannah More was sharply observed - a compassionate snob with a sense of humour and an ethical edge to her piety.
Go see before it moves away from the big screen.