See? Sometimes we do get limited release films around here. At least I think this one’s still only in limited release. I’m not sure about that sort of thing anymore. But the theatre was packed. Just as the previews started, every person over sixty-five in the greater metropolitan area showed up, and they took forever to settle down.
But a good time was had by all, I think. The film is based on the true story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) and his campaign to abolish slavery in the British Isles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Everyone calls him Wilber because there are just too many Williams around, including his school friend (and later Prime Minister) William Pitt the Younger. Elected to the House of Commons at 21, Wilber was at first a doubtful politican, preferring to listen to “the preacher in his head”, as one character says. It was Pitt who pulled him back into the game by introducing him to the hard-core circle of abolitionists in England, among them a freed black slave named Equiano, and thus his crusade was born.
The film jumps around at first, as the ill and weary Wilber thinks back over fifteen years of his campaign, but they do a decent job of not making it too confusing. Suffering from ulcerative colitis (a nasty disease that eats away at the colon), he’s become an opium addict in his attempts to work through the pain. Back then, you see, everything from colds to heart disease was treated with laudanum, which is opium dissolved in wine. It was one of the most effective treatments they had, sort of — it didn’t actually fix anything, but at least it kept you from caring so much about being sick. I’m not sure anyone realized at first how addictive it was, but later they probably just didn’t care.
Wilber is portrayed as a free spirit throughout the movie. He sits in the grass and stares at spiderwebs, chats with his Francis-Bacon-quoting butler, and gets to wear a wig that actually looks like real hair instead of the pasty white ones everyone else gets. He also lacks everyone else’s pale complexion, so even sick he almost looks healthier than most of the House of Commons. You can tell he isn’t quite the free spirit that abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) is, though, because Clarkson walks around with his real hair grown long and hanging out for everyone to see. Horrors!
|Equiano gives Wilber his first look at a slave ship.|
Anyway, after setting him loose on abolition, Pitt (William, remember, not Brad) now has to quietly distance himself from Wilber because of all the maneuvering involved in keeping his power. Relations with France are shaky (big shock) and abolition is unpopular. Wilber faithfully introduces the bill once a year, each time seeing it voted down by a huge margin.
His matchmaking friends introduce him to Barbara Spooner, a fellow reformer, and they are quickly married — historically, he proposed just two weeks after they met. She was twenty and he was thirty-eight, but that was just how things were then. In the film, she gets married in something that looks more like an 18th century nightgown than a wedding dress, but maybe that’s just how things were then, too. Barbara gives him the courage to continue. Aided by a defector from the other side, the canny Lord Charles Fox (the ever-present Michael Gambon), and the slave ship captain turned Anglican preacher, John Newton (Albert Finney), Wilber soldiers on. It was Newton who wrote the hymn that gave the film its title, probably the most famous hymn in the English language. His conversion in real life wasn’t so dramatic as in the movie, but Albert does a good job as the haunted old man who finally finds some peace in writing out his memories in an anti-slavery tract.
I was worried that I’d feel like I was being preached at every minute of the film, or that Wilber would be so perfect he’d drive me crazy. Thankfully, neither of those things happened, though they did come awfully close a few times. There’s just enough quiet humor to keep things from getting too oppressive. Gruffudd makes a relatively low-key Wilber, not the firebrand I was expecting, but he does give a good sense of being worn to shreds by his obsession. His nightmares and visions are overdone, but maybe that’s what happens when you take laudanum at all hours. There is at least a nice sense of friendship between Wilber and Pitt, but the effect politics has on that friendship isn’t really explored, which is kind of a shame. Crusaders aren’t usually easy to live with, but somehow Wilber’s personal life always seems fine.
I’m going to go with three and a quarter idols on this one. It sticks pretty close to fact as far as I know, and manages not to drag, as happens all too often with historical epics. So go out and watch it in celebration of Black History Month. When it finally reaches your local theatre, that is.