As an agnostic, director Michael Apted likes studying people of faith. That interest lured him to direct Amazing Grace (PG for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language), a film about 19th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce. What he found was an intriguing, almost paradoxical historical figure, both devout Christian and shrewd politician.
Portraying this "brilliant balance," Apted told WORLD, was difficult. "You don't want to dim his faith, nor do you want to make him look politically naïve."
Apted, whose films include The Coal Miner's Daughter and Nell, along with screenwriter Steven Knight, had Wilberforce's words and historical record to keep them on track. They scoured his writings and parliamentary speeches, as well as the work of Wilberforce biographers. The result is a beautifully lyrical story, in which Wilberforce's faith is the gently guiding motor.
Amazing Grace is the latest offering from Bristol Bay Productions, which produced the Oscar-winning film Ray. Walden Media, its sister studio, is leading the publicity charge for the film, mindful of the fact that few Americans have even heard of Wilberforce-4 percent, to be exact, according to a Barna Group poll.
Apted's goal was to make "a heroic story about politics," he said. But for Americans new to Wilberforce, the director hopes they walk out of theaters saying, "I didn't know anything about it. That's a good story."
With its Feb. 23 nationwide debut, Amazing Grace is more a movement than a movie. In the last few months, Walden has pre-screened the film with church leaders and lawmakers. On election night last year, Chuck Colson hosted a preview in the Washington area, introducing his hero as "God's statesman."
Using the film as a launching pad, abolitionist groups began a campaign to publicize modern-day slavery. Walden produced educational materials for schools and teachers. And to make the point, the film's opening, mostly in independent theaters, coincides with the day Wilberforce finally succeeded in pushing an abolition bill through Parliament, with an overwhelming vote in the House of Commons in 1807.
The film follows Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) over the 20 years it took to achieve this "great object." Following his conversion, he grappled with how to serve God and remain a politician. "We humbly suggest that you can do both," one abolitionist remarked, as Wilberforce first learns of slavery's horrors.
Knight's sprightly script captures Wilberforce's determination despite failure and his growing acumen as a politician. Other scenes show he remained a hard figure to pigeonhole: He tenderly adopts sick birds and rabbits, but shies from abolishing slavery through a French-style revolution, as some urged.
The film also does well to explain Wilberforce by powerfully portraying his closest friends and guides, including witty Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), whom Wilberforce marries, and John Newton (Albert Finney).
Finney's moving Newton matures alongside Wilberforce, even as he encourages his protegé's fight. First fearful of his "20,000 ghosts"-the slaves Newton once transported-he eventually exorcises them by making a historical record of his murderous old work. Along the way he remembers two things: "I'm a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior."
So summarizes the film: Great grace makes great men. Whether Christian or not, viewers will find a rich, inspiring narrative of an effective man of faith. And that makes an amazing story.