What’s so amazing about “Amazing Grace”?
We telephoned director Michael Apted this week to ask him this very question –- and, in a moment, we’ll share with you what he had to say.
But, first, you may be wondering why this is such an important question. We’re talking today about the British movie, “Amazing Grace,” released in theaters in February –- and released on DVD this week –- that tells the story of William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the British slave trade.
It’s an important question because film critics were widely split on this movie made by Apted, one of the world’s most respected directors, and starring popular Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who is best known to American audiences as the senior figure in the Fantastic Four team of super heroes.
More than a few newspaper film critics slammed the film as boring.
The Village voice complained that it was “ponderous” and “flat as a pancake.”
The Chicago Tribune called it “remote” and “disposable.”
The venerable New York Times summoned a more rarefied vocabulary to sniff distastefully that this new Apted film was “part BBC-style biography, part Hollywood-like hagiography” and “wobbles off the historical rails” -– and, if that weren’t enough, it “becomes bogged down in dopey romance.”
Owww! That hurts, especially when applied to such creative and inspiring work by one of the most thoughtful directors working in cinema today.
You may remember Michael Apted for such finely crafted films as “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist: The Dian Fossey Story” –- or even for the James Bond thriller, “The World Is Not Enough.”
But his heart and soul rests in telling human tales like the stories of Fossey or country singer Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
In movie history books, he’ll be remembered for something else entirely: His “7 Up” series of documentaries that began following a group of 7-year-old children in 1964 for British television -– and reported on their lives at 7-year intervals ever since. The “7 Up” series is on many film critics’ short lists of top movies of all time –- and, for
congregational discussion groups, it could be a terrific choice for an innovative series of classes on aging, personal values and community attitudes. There’s little that’s specifically religious in these every-7-year documentaries, but they say a whole lot about the universal spiritual questions that run through our lives.
(Remember: You can click on any book or film cover in our stories — and you’ll jump to our Bookstore, where you can read our reviews and purchase copies, if you wish. So, click on the “Amazing Grace” or “Up Series” DVD covers to learn more.)
This brings us back to the Question of the Day about “Amazing Grace” –- in which Apted (shown at right) wanted to examine how one person’s life held the capacity to change deeply entrenched beliefs in society. William Wilberforce essentially began working with a little circle of radical misfits and, by the time he was finished years later, he had peacefully changed the attitudes of a major portion of British society.
I telephoned Apted to ask him about his own reflections on the film, close to a year after it debuted in theaters.
The negative reviews still sting a bit, apparently.
“The film got me into a bit of trouble,” Apted said. “Some people wanted to know: Why isn’t the film more about the evils of slavery, taking us on boats and into Africa and so on? Why isn’t there more action in the film?
“But what interested me in the story were the political motives that drove Wilberforce and his gang of supporters into parliamentary action that eventually would destroy slavery.”
I said, “Seeing the film in this light, it becomes a pretty strong call to action today.”
“Right,” Apted said. “It’s dangerous territory to talk about this, but I do feel that people today are cornering themselves politically. They’re becoming so polarized that it’s dangerous and damaging to the political process itself.
“The film about Wilberforce looks at a whole climate of negotiation and consensus that we don’t see today. In Wilberforce’s struggle, positions could change and they did. But, now, people seem to be embedded in positions until they cannot possibly move. It makes me wonder: Are we reaching the end of political process itself?
“I think we need to remember people like Wilberforce. We need his kind of bipartisanship that he built.”
I said, “He was a model for us in many ways. He also was a pioneer in seeing animals as having spiritual value. He protected animals from the cruelty that was so common in his day.”
“Yes,” Apted said, “He was a founding father of this idea. He practiced what he preached. I tried to show this in the film. His houses were always full of animals of all sorts.
“He was famous for never being able to get rid of animals, never being able to fire people from his staff, making his house available and open to people even to the point of eccentricity.
“He would feed people and sometimes he wouldn’t even know who was in his house for dinner. Often you can accuse religious people of a coldness, when it comes to their fellow countrymen and their neighbors, but Wilberforce had a warmth that existed throughout his entire life.”
Many film critics and religion writers did warm to Apted’s film.
I wrote a glowing piece about “Amazing Grace” for the Detroit Free Press.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s film critic Mick LaSalle, wrote: “Anyone who has ever felt morally right and completely in the minority will have a point of entry into this movie.”
And the LA Times’ critic Kenneth Turan captured the film’s power most eloquently.
Turan wrote, in part, that this “story of idealism, idealists and speaking truth to power, understands there is something inordinately moving and dramatic about a man who stands up for what is right and makes a difference in this life.”
He added, later in the piece, “It is risky, in this cynical and mocking age, to make a determinedly traditional biopic … a film willing to focus on the good that men do in the same way works such as ‘The Life of Emile Zola,’ ‘Madame Curie’ and ‘Wilson’ did in decades past.
“Fortunately, director Michael Apted and his team understand the challenges of this kind of story and have met them with intelligence and energy.”
COME BACK TOMORROW for a story about exploring our spiritual roots, when our lives are uprooted in childhood by abandonment or adoption. There’s a powerful new movie opening on this theme — and a great new book for parents helping adopted children in their spiritual quest to find their birth parents.
PLEASE, Tell us what you think! Post a Comment on our site. If you’re reading this via Email, click on the headline, visit our site and you’ll find a Comment link at the end of this article. Or, you can Click Here to email me, David Crumm.