Amazing Grace (2006) is a hard film to review. On the one hand, its story of William Wilberforce, the politician who led the British campaign to end the slave trade in parliament, is important and fascinating. Ioan Gruffudd is hot hot hot, and Benedict Cumberbatch rocks a wig like nobody’s business. And Jenny Beavan‘s costume designs are spot on for the 1780s, 1790s, and 1800s depicted on screen (and gorgeous to boot). But do (did) we need another conventional heroic biopic about a white savior? No, we really don’t.
White people talking to other white people. What’s the racial equivalent of the Bechdel test?
One of the biggest problems is that a minor character in the film is Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 1797), a man from modern-day Nigeria who was enslaved, purchased his freedom, and became a major leader in the British abolitionist movement, including writing his autobiography. His life is so fascinating, and the kind of story that hardly ever (if ever) gets told. Instead, beyond Equiano, the only glimpse of slavery that we actually see on screen is a brief shot in Wilberforce’s laudanum dream and a scene where Equiano shows Wilberforce around a docked, empty slave ship. Of course, the abolitionist movement was made up of an interracial, international network, and without the dedication of many across the color line, it would likely never have been successful. But according to this movie, slavery is hard on white people and that’s just shockingly obtuse.
Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano.
The real Equiano: Olaudah Equiano (‘Gustavus Vassa’) by Daniel Orme, published by Olaudah Equiano (‘Gustavus Vassa’), after W. Denton, 1789, National Portrait Gallery
IMO the filmmakers were inspired by this painting, previously thought to depict Equiano (now thought to be abolitionist/writer/composer Ignatius Sancho), for the film character’s look | Portrait of an African by Allan Ramsay, 1757-60, Royal Albert Memorial Museum
Imagine if this film had depicted Equiano’s life.
Now that we’ve discussed the most important thing, let’s appreciate the beauty of Gruffudd as Wilberforce (British politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist):
Tousled hair, high collars – grrr!
Ooo in my imagination they’re flirting
Taking on The System.
And Cumberbatch as William Pitt the Younger (prime minister and politician):
WHO KNEW CUMBERBATCH SUITED WIGS THIS WELL.
I’m just checking out those side rolls!
Okay he’s still cute without the wig. Harumph.
Let’s discuss how the film is a who’s who of British actors; you will indeed spend the film wondering “Where do I know that person from?” so let me help you out:
Nicholas Farrell (Mansfield Park, The Jewel in the Crown, Hamlet, Charlotte Gray, Persuasion, Casualty 1909, Grace of Monaco, Finding Altamira) as Henry Thornton (economist, banker, philanthropist, and parliamentarian).
Michael Gambon (The Wings of the Dove, Plunkett & Macleane, Sleepy Hollow, Wives and Daughters, Gosford Park, Cranford, Brideshead Revisited, Emma, The King’s Speech, Victoria & Abdul, Little Women) as Charles James Fox (statesman).
Georgie Glen (Mrs. Brown, Berkeley Square, Shakespeare in Love, Wives and Daughters, Daniel Deronda, Rome, Easy Virtue, Desperate Romantics, Hysteria, Les Misérables, The Crown, Call the Midwife) as Hannah More (religious writer and philanthropist).
Toby Jones (Ever After, Aristocrats, Finding Neverland, Elizabeth I, A Harlot’s Progress, Titanic, Tale of Tales, The Witness for the Prosecution) as William, Duke of Clarence (politician, later Lord High Admiral, later King William IV).
Let us appreciate that Wilberforce was apparently an animal lover/supporter of animal rights, so there are a number of puppers in this film as well as a HARE:
Pup sez “PUT ME DOWN POPS.”
“PLEASE DON’T EAT ME.”
And finally, let’s look at the wardrobes of the two leading female characters, dressed perfectly in the transitional fashions of the 1790s and 1800s.
First, we have Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce (1777-1847):
This jacket. THIS HAT. This is seriously something I may need to make.
Two different silk taffetas make up the jacket.
The outer one has a subtle stripe.
LOVE the collars in this era!
That perfect ringlet on her bust!
Various layers of dark blue.
I don’t love the farmgirl pigtails.
But they’re right for the period, and Garai rocks the red hair.
It’s another jacket and waistcoat ensemble.
Wedding ensemble, 1797.
It’s a beautiful chemise gown and bonnet, but Garai is so much more simply dressed than any of the attendees. I’m not sure if she’s meant to be fashion forward, or if they just didn’t have the budget to update the extras’ wardrobes.
Garai (right) looking very late 1790s, while Le Touzel (left) looks more 1780s.
Note the contrast.
I think the chemise gown is made of silk organza.
She’s got a HUGE sash (she’s bending over here).
Jumping forward to 1806-ish and pregnant.
1807 in a square “scholar”-type hat.
The main problem I have with Garai’s look is her makeup, which, while natural colors, looks put on with a trowel. I feel like I’m generally immune to modern leading lady makeup, so the fact that this jumped out at me both times I’ve watched this is saying something.
Maybe she’s born with it…
Maybe it’s Maybelline!
And Sylvestra Le Touzel (Mansfield Park, Vanity Fair, Northanger Abbey, Titanic, The Crown) as Marianne, the wife of Henry Thornton:
1797ish, in a high-waisted gown.
Same era; love the hat!
And the collar.
I like how the dress crosses over at the front.
Eating breakfast (hence the hair).
Looking more 1780s at the 1797 wedding.
And a few extras:
That green velvet jacket (center) has also appeared in The Affair of the Necklace and Marie Antoinette.
Extras at the wedding.
Have you seen Amazing Grace? What did you think?