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William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd of Fantastic Four and the Hornblower TV films) is an idealist Member of Parliament, navigating the world of 18th century backroom politics to end the slave trade in the British Empire. In a tribute to the victory of those seeking the common good over the machinations of those hiding in the dark corners of power, director Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner's Daughter) chronicles Wilberforce's uphill battle against a powerful majority of pro-slavery politicians, culminating with an exciting and moving showdown against his political foes. Co-starring Michael Gambon, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rufus Sewell.
 

 Amazing Grace

I need a love story. Whatever the film, I don’t know how to tell the story unless there’s something emotional happening at the center of it all. It doesn’t have to be boy-girl, it could be any combination; young man/old man (Thunderheart), or girl/mountain gorilla (Gorillas in the Mist). I remember when we were editing Coal Miner’s Daughter, that despite all the music and color, whenever we took our eyes off the central love story between Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones, the movie came unstuck.

Amazing Grace came to me as a bio-pic about a God-fearing man, William Wilberforce, who wanted to make the world a better place. He became obsessed with the horrors of the slave trade between Africa and the New World and it became his destiny to destroy it. He took on the British Government, the powerful Sugar Industry (on which most of the United Kingdom’s wealth depended), and the King. Steven Knight (the screenwriter) and I stayed with the central idea, but rather than make it a portrait of the man, we made it about the politics—the horse trading, the cut and thrust, and the backroom coalitions that are at the heart of political action.

Our story is about using the power of politics to do good things, to make life better, a notion that hardly resonates in modern times. But as we started to figure out all the intricacies of the plot, I realized that I didn’t have my love story. There was a girl but she came into the story in the third act so that wouldn’t do. There was also a deep and complex friendship that Wilberforce had with another young political icon (William Pitt), but somehow you couldn’t hang the whole story on that. So if the girl wouldn’t come to the story, then the story had to go to the girl. We developed a totally new structure to tell the anti–slave trade story within the framework of Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) and Barbara’s (Romola Garai) whirlwind courtship and marriage.

It gave us a lot of advantages. It freed us from the bane of bio-pics—linear storytelling, so we were able to cherry-pick our history. In Wilby’s telling of his early successes and disappointments, we could compress the action and dump great chunks of dead time without disturbing the rhythm of the story.The emotion of the courtship added heart and soul to the political storytelling.

It also gave us some headaches. Once you start messing with time, to-ing and fro-ing between the past and the present, it can create difficulties for the audience. It gets hard to figure out where you are, and although it’s a 101 rule of filmmaking to be ahead of the audience and not play catch up, you don’t want to lose them by creating confusion. Each time-change has to be carefully signposted and then the creating of parallel worlds works well. It’s the sort of thing that film does brilliantly. As a novice documentarian, I’ll never forget watching Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ haunting “then and now” vision of the Holocaust death camps. In a 30-minute short, he created as much emotion and power about the subject as I’ve ever seen.

One drawback of the device is that it positively invites criticism. Like, wouldn’t Barbara already know the story she’s being told? Well maybe, but perhaps she’d like to hear it from the Man himself!

The other love story in the movie, between the young political meteors Wilby and William Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister at the age of 24!), dramatizes the great personal cost of the shifting political sands. Never overtly sexual, Ioan and Benedict Cumberbatch (Pitt) played it for all the emotional nuance they could muster. As the battle to destroy the slave trade unfolds and the stakes escalate, the tensions between the dogged and uncompromising Wilby and the pragmatic Pitt send the relationship into a tailspin. The political divisions between them and their ultimate reconciliation, when placed into an emotional context, puts meat on the bones of the story.

Politics of any period can be tricky territory for movies, so all the more reason to be mindful of the words of Oscar Wilde, “without love there is no understanding.”