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« Who needs Charlton Heston when you’ve got this guy? | Main | RE: Practical Justice: What Can I Do? »

February 23, 2007

You don’t always get what you want

Charlotte Allen, in today's WSJ, says viewers of Amazing Grace may receive the impression "that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice." The Wilberforce who "also wrote theological tracts, sponsored missionary and charitable works, and fought for what he called the 'reformation of manners'" has been "played down" by director Michael Apted, Allan writes. And she notes that Apted told Christianity Today that he decided to play down Wilberforce's religious convictions in order not to be too "preachy."

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis calls Grace a "squeaky clean" film that "carries a strong whiff of piety," offering a Wilberforce who "is a fanatic, a true believer, a crusader, a man of action and God .... who talks to God while lying in his garden." In other words, despite Apted's efforts, Amazing Grace is just too darn preachy. (Somebody please lead Ms. Dargis to a Victorian fainting couch and dab her forehead with cologne.)

I've seen the film twice. There are several quite inspiring scenes depicting the religious beliefs and motivations of both Wilberforce and John Newton. Overall, the film is superb. If Christians (and Wilberforce historians) do not see everything they would like in this film, my question is: When have we ever gotten everything we wanted in films about Christians? Many fans of C.S. Lewis had similar concerns about Shadowlands, including Chuck Colson, who thinks the film fell "painfully short" as genuine biography.

But as Micheal Flaherty, president of Walden Media (and maker of Amazing Grace), notes, one of Walden Media's most important goals is to get film viewers reading about the subjects of the film. And when viewers of Amazing Grace start grabbing the books, they will discover the full story about this deeply religious man who believed God had given him "two great objectives": fighting slavery and reforming society. The movie tie-in book about Wilberforce by former BreakPoint writer Eric Metaxas, also titled Amazing Grace, hit No. 24 on last week's New York Times bestseller list. It will undoubtedly go higher now that the film has been released.

That said, I cannot help wondering how much better this film might have been had the original screenwriter for Amazing Grace, Colin Welland (who wrote the screenplay for the wonderfully preachy Chariots of Fire), not been replaced by Apted.

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David Bunn

I saw "Amazing Grace" recently and was, frankly, disappointed. While I understand the difficulty of making a film like this that might appeal to a broader audience than one particular cultural group, I think the film really suffered from a tension between Wilberforce's actual and historical Christian faith and character, and the director/screenwriter's goal to play this down (based on an interview I read with Apted it appeared he wasn't even that personally comfortable with Wilberforce's faith). The film thus has a split personality--neither the Christian aspect nor Wilberforce's political ambitions come off as forceful and deep. I think even the acting was inconsistent because of this ambiguous script and story. A few examples--during the scene when John Newton (whose role was so strange that as prominent a critic as Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal misunderstood the part and actually thought he was a monk as opposed to the Anglican priest that he really was) utters the classic lines, roughly paraphrased, "I know two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior" and then goes on urge the Wilberforce character to destroy the slavers, plantation owners, etc in tones of vengefulness and anger. There is absolutely no religious or philosophical connection between the two types of statements, indicating a total ignorance or indifference on the part of the writer as to how a reformed Christian like Newton would have viewed the supporters of the slave trade. A even more troubling scene is when Wilberforce visits his sick friend William Pitt and offers no words of religious comfort or hope when his friend expresses strong emotional fear at the prospect of death. The Clapham friends of Wilberforce are flat and one dimensional, roughly equivalent to how many people view pious Christians, with the except of the tippling Thomas Clarkson, another very odd characterization. It is extremely telling that the film depicts Wilberforce's other main goal as the reformation of society, as opposed to the reformation of morals, which is what it actually was. In my opinion, this is really a mediocre film about a great subject, and Christians are going overboard praising it because we, rightly, want to encourage the production of these kinds of works. But let us not lose sight of high standards of historical accuracy and great writing. Quality and a commitment to the truth endure, even if a few more critics would be offended in the process. Let's also encourage companies like Walden to hire directors who are authentically committed to their projects, and not to settle for the Hollywood insiders who don't even share Anschutz's goals. This seems to me to be a relevant appication of the Gospel verse about needing new wineskins for the new wine.

Lindsay Coppinger

Compared to the options that we encounter for our theater enjoyment, "Amazing Grace" was a refreshing change. Wilberforce's principled convictions and undetered stand for the rights and dignity of all man kind should intrigue further exploration into who this man was. I also felt his courtship with his future wife was a beautiful example of both is high principles, and his genuine love for this woman; a wonderful example that has vanished in most arenas of our culture. With any further exploration, the true guiding focus of Wilberforce's life is crystal clear! It certainly beats the recent Biblically based film "One Night With The King" in every aspect!!!

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