Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review of Amazing Grace

First off, let me just state that I am NOT a professional movie critic, nor would I ever claim to be. However, after watching the movie 'Amazing Grace: The William Wiberforce Story' I felt a strange urge to review it. So without further ado, I present my review.

The movie begins with our protagonist, William Wilberforce, riding in a carriage during a rainstorm. As his carriage moves further down the road he witnesses two men whipping, and kicking their black horse that has collapsed on the side of the road. William stops his carriage, and goes to reap some moral justice on the men. He says one sentence and the men stop beating the horse and almost instantly the collapsed horse starts to move. Here we see the set up for the theme that runs through the entire movie. Through his wit and passion, Wilberforce goes through storm after storm to stop the brutality of the slave trade in England.

William is plagued by dreams and visions concerning slaves and the terrors of the slave trade. He is also ill with a disease that is referred to in the movie as colitis, which causes him to take opium to soothe the pains of the illness. His powerful voice is all but gone, and his passion has faded into a quiet frustration. In order to 'heal' William's pains, his friends introduce him to Barbara Spooner. In the movie, Barbara is shown to be a strong-willed, politically driven young woman. While we do not know much about the real Barbara Spooner, what we do know is that she was a strong Christian, and very devoted to faith in Jesus Christ. William Wilberforce was also a Christian at this point in the movie, yet the director chose to make politics the driving force that brings them together, rather than their common love for God. I cannot say that I am surprised by this, but to be fair, this movie was clearly made as a political victory story for England, rather than a story about the driving power of faith in Christ. It was set up as a politically minded story, and that is exactly what it is.

The movie makes frequent use of 'flashback' scenes where we see the young Wilberforce arguing in the House of Commons. He is shown to have the ability to quiet the loudest opposer, and he accomplishes this with one liners that are both witty and humorous. This, I am happy to say, is most likely a true representation of the real Wilberforce. He was known to be quite brilliant in his speech, as well as passionate. While the Wilberforce in the movie was tall, dark, and handsome, the real Wilberforce was no more than 5 feet tall! All criticisms aside, Ioan Grufford was a great Wilberforce by my estimation.

At this point William has not yet been introduced to the horrors of the slave trade, and is mainly arguing for the conclusion of the war in America. However, at a late night poker game between William and a merchant slave trader William is shown to already have a distaste for slavery. We see this more accurately when the merchant tries to gamble against Wilberforce with a slave that the merchant had purchased. William is disgusted and leaves the gentlemen's club, followed by his close friend and future prime minister, William Pitt. The Williams have a short conversation about slavery and a great quote is born from this discourse. Wilberforce refers to witnessing slavery in this way:

"For me it's like arsenic. Every dose doubles the effect."

Pitt is more concerned with becoming prime minister than anything else, but Wilberforce is determined to do something about the slave traders in the club, and we then witness either one of the most powerful scenes, or the most cheesy. Wilberforce walks into the club, stands on a table, and sings the song Amazing Grace. His voice, while a little shaky, quiets the roar of the merchants and some of them even appear moved by the display. I couldn't get past the cheese factor, but it was a meaningful scene. How true it is, I am not sure, but it was comforting to see Wilberforce stand up for his faith even among wolves.

We go back a little further to see Wilberforce lying in the grass speaking to God. One of William's servants sees him lying there, and William admits how strange he has been acting. His explanation is simply, "It's God". I was so glad to hear how Wilberforce talked about his salvation in this short conversation between himself and his butler.

Butler: "You found God sir?"
Wilberforce: "I think He found me."

While this is just a small moment in the film, it speaks loudly of Wilberforce's theology. He was known to be of the Calvinist bent, and was known to be in total awe of the design of God. Needless to say, this made me smile. To the film's credit, Wilberforce had a fair amount of 'defending my faith' scenes. For instance, William Pitt brings a group of political activists to Wilberforce's house to convince him to be the the point man for the abolition of the slave trade instead of being a full time minister of the gospel. Another great quote comes from this scene and it is this:

'We understand that you are having a difficult time deciding on whether to be a minister of the Lord or political activist. We humbly suggest that you can do both."

This quote actually struck me on a very deep level. As I've come to love God more and seek after Him more, it is natural that I would take the view that full time ministry is the end all be all. To be devoted to a secular interest would be more humanistic and man centered than God centered, so full-time ministry is the way to go! However, this quote stirred that thought in my mind and helped me to realize that God does make every man to do a specific work for Him. For some that may be eldership, and for others it may be caring for the poor, orphans, etc. Wilberforce most likely thought the same way I did, until he realized that God could possibly use him in an even greater way as an activist, than as a pastor. And did God ever use him! William Pitt even asks him in the film:

"Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord, or to change the world?"

Wilberforce truly did both. In real life WIlberforce was still driven by his faith and was very dedicated to study and theology. While this is harder to maintain in the public eye, he was able to persevere in his faith regardless. I would argue that Wilberforce's driving force behind abolishing slavery was his desire to do the will of God, and his convictions as a believer. This however, was only lightly touched on in the film.

John Newton was represented decently in the movie, but I must confess I was a little disappointed. Albert Finney was a terrific Newton, and to his credit he is a great actor. I really believed that he could be John Newton, but the delivery was a little disconnected from the actual personality of Newton. For instance, Finney played Newton as a somewhat sarcastic, somewhat hurt, and somewhat angry old man that could not let go of his past sins against slaves when he himself was a trader. While this helped the film, Newton was considered to be a joyful man that was very gentle and very loving. He most likely carried the burden of his past sins with him, but from what I've read of him it wasn't to the degree displayed in the film. Later in the movie, when Newton is blind, he is represented in a much more accurate light. In fact, one of his lines was very moving and I was actually suprised to see it in the film.

"I remember two things very clearly. I'm a sinner and Christ is a great savior."

Of all the things that they could have had Newton say, I am so pleased that this was in the film. This scene truly captured the heart of Newton's and Wilberforce's lives and mission, and I am so thankful that it was spoken so obviously. He also had a very humorous line that I can imagine the real Newton saying after he had gone blind.

"God decided I'd seen enough."

Pure gold.

As you have noticed, I have stopped reviewing in a timeline fashion, and have moved to a more character driven review. I want to touch on one more character in more detail and then I will conclude.

Barbara Spooner had the best lines in the entire movie. They were more powerful than William's and Newton's and to be honest they stuck with me more after the movie had ended. I also see great parallels to Christianity in her quotes, and they would be very useful if speaking about sin, trials, etc. Here are a few of the quotes:

"Seems to me that if there is a bad taste in your mouth, you spit it out. You don't keep swallowing it."

"I told my friends there was actual slave blood in every lump of sugar"

These are just a few, but honestly, Barbara had the best quotes in the entire film, and I was convicted by almost every one of them.

Finally, Wilberforce was driven by two goals. The abolition of the slave trade, and the reformation of society. While the film mainly touched on the slave trade, it is important to note that after the bill to abolish the trade was passed, Wilberforce continued for 18 more years attempting to abolish the use of current slaves throughout England. Three days before he died, this bill was passed as well. For the last quarter of his life he couldn't even stand under his own power and required some sort of hard under-suit that could keep him upright! It just goes to show that God brings you home when you are done, plain and simple. No matter how weak the flesh, God still brings change to the world and ultimately glory to Himself.

I really did enjoy this movie, even though it was different than I expected. The title makes it out to be a blatant Christian film, but as stated before, this isn't the case. The film itself was obviously about political victory, and this was done very well. While there were moments of cheese, there were also moments that were moving and convicting. If you haven't seen this film, I would highly suggest that you give it a chance. If you are a Christian, or you love history, this movie is for you, but I do believe that anyone can enjoy it.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, thanks for the post. I appreciate your thoroughness, because I too have a tendancy to not be shortwinded (even when typing).

    I think you're right about the movie, namely, that it was more about political advocacy than it was about Christianity. After watching the film two times (once from red box) I have come to the conclusion that it was highly influenced by the secularization of society. This was only solidified by the "making of the film" bonus feature, which showed the director as almost completely ignorant to Wilberforce's true passion for the God of the Bible.

    Are we truly supposed to believe that a man getting his "arse" wet and staring at spiders and flowers (depicted as somewhat aloof!) was somehow therefore compelled to spend 40 years of his life in this costly battle against fierce enemies? Such is the fake sugar the world hands us and calls it real.

    So I guess my take on the movie is much less optimistic. I was almost totally disappointed with it because it was ridiculously small in regard to God and high on secular moralism and humanitarianism. On the other hand, I think it details for us an important lesson: unregenerate people can't understand the significance of the new birth in Christians, and the cross is foolishness to them. At best, this "silly little religion" is an opiate of our imagination that makes us act nicely toward others (a product not any different than watching Oprah or Dr. Phil).

    Secondly, I think this makes us question the "social gospel" of our day, which is that idea that the gospel is mainly intended to make society a better place to live. It seems like the filmmakers (like so many today) are willing to make an impartial pass on Christianity, in so far as it championed a worthy social cause. This "social gospel" is unmistakably secular and against the gospel in nearly every way, and yet we must be cautious because it exists in most all churches in America.

    The one and only true gospel of God is the truth about what God has done through Christ to make completely sinful and unworthy creatures be without spot or blemish before Him. In other words, the gospel is about what God has done to reconcile us to Himself (1 Pet. 3:18), not about changing society. The gospel will inevitably change society, but indirectly through the conversion of sinners. The "social gospel," therefore, is a dangerous, godless, blasphemous anathema that must be resisted at all levels, including in movies wrapped in a "christian" vinear.

    So many people today think that Christianity is about moral reform, but primarily it isn't. It's about reconciliation with God. Yes, that changes us, but the change is no end in itself nor is it glorifying to God if we consider it apart from reconciliation through Christ. I think this film helps people stay in their unbelief as to what Christianity truly is -- it is not a moral program that changes society and makes people feel good because they've done the right thing. First and foremost, it's about reconciliation with God.

    Far from being denunciatory or overly negative, I hope this post helps us consider what is the true gospel and what is its purpose, as well as how we need to address it in a society that is blind to authentic Christianity. I am certainly not one of those people who think non-Christian movies (or other worldly mechanisms) are an effective tool to "build bridges" between non-believers and Christians, nor do I think that is the mission of the church. The mission is to preach the gospel of God concerning Christ -- that He has made a way for us to be redeemed to Him -- and to call sinners to repentance and faith in Christ as their only hope for salvation -- this is the one and only "power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).

    More than anything what is needed today is men of God who will "preach the word" (2 Tim. 4:2) and let their lives be sermons unto the praise and glory of God. We don't need clever movies that bring unbelievers to see them -- we need to preach the gospel to the unbelievers and the believers in our midst. This gives me such a great hope in the power of God to save men! God will do it by His Spirit through the preaching of His Word (Rom. 10:16, ff.; 16:1, ff.).

    I appreciate so much your post, Paul, as it has made me think so much harder and longer about these things -- to which I am very grateful. I was encouraged by the post and your willingness to do a great thing -- make us think! I hope you will continue to post reviews of movies and other things that you find along the way.

    I look forward to a reply. Yours in Christ,