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Now here is a Beautiful Man: William Wilberforce (1759-1833).


In the opening minutes of Amazing Grace (2006), an ailing William Wilberforce insists on getting out of his coach in the rain to expostulate with two cruel men who are beating a fallen horse. He tells them the obvious: “If you leave the horse alone for an hour, he may recover!” At this point, I knew I was going to love this movie. Because Wilberforce, as it turns out, was a founding member of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which focused in its earliest days on the mistreatment of cart horses, and was the world’s first animal welfare society (1824). Well ahead of his time, Wilberforce saw the big picture, and understood that true compassion is applicable to all creatures on earth. His love for animals took nothing away from his love for his fellow humans; in fact, each nourished the other.

Religion is a double-edged sword. It can urge us to very bad deeds, as well as very good ones. Abolitionism, the movement to end slavery that took root in the eighteenth century, is a shining example of the good that religious conviction can do. Were it not for the Quakers and other minority groups and individuals who were moved by reasons of conscience, and what they called “the inner light,” slavery would have remained institutionalized in the West for much longer than it was. I think of the eighteenth century as a time of Enlightenment, a time when rational thought won out over some of the excesses of religion, and free-thinkers began to assert themselves. Religion was “out,” and especially the religious enthusiasm of evangelical converts like William Wilberforce. Yet, in the midst of the scientific and philosophical Enlightenment was born another kind of Light, the light of social justice and progress. What an inspiring century, that gave birth (not without some painful and bloody pangs) to modern democracy, modern science, and the first popular movements toward compassion for all our fellow creatures.

How right were my friends who mentioned the roster of great actors in this film. What a visual and aural feast, starting with Albert Finney and Michael Gambon, two majestic and rough-hewn elder statesmen of British film. When they appear, they dominate the screen, and you can hardly take your eyes from them. Rufus Sewell, Nicholas Farrell, and Youssou D’Nour: beautiful men in their prime, full of charisma. The youthful Benedict Cumberbatch and Ioan Gruffudd, one fair and blue-eyed, the other dark-eyed and intense. And last but by no means least, Ciarán Hinds as the brooding, formidable villain of the piece, the planes of his face as fascinating and compelling as those of a Henry Moore sculpture.

Usually I dislike films focused almost entirely on men and their doings. In this case, I savored every moment, probably because a subject matter that could have been by turns tedious, gruesome and melodramatic was instead handled with grace, wit and charm. Yet I always felt that the screenplay was respectful of the subject matter.

The look of the film is impressive, especially the realistic shots of the Thames full of tall ships anchored at the docks, and the surprisingly intimate eighteenth-century House of Commons. The costumes, however, surprised me. While I knew that by the late part of the century, men had abandoned the flamboyant bright pinks, blues and greens of the previous decades, I did not expect to see so much stark, puritanical black. Looking at the Wiki fashion galleries for 1775-95, I think the costume designer may have ignored the actual fashions in favor of a more uniform look, so as not to disturb the aesthetics of the film with a jumble of colors. Men in those days still wore plenty of colors, though they were more muted than in previous decades: brown, slate blue, gold, tan, dark dusky red. I have always found these clothes attractive: the puffy-sleeved shirts, the high neckcloths, the breeches that displayed a well-turned leg. Though it has to be said that the clothes demanded a good figure.

As for the wigs, I suppose they are an acquired taste. To the modern eye, they look decidedly odd. Having researched the topic online, I find that they were originally adopted as a fashion craze when both Louis XIV and Charles II began wearing long wigs— which were already common among those who suffered baldness as a result of syphilis. Head lice too were rampant, but it was easier to delouse a shaved head. These rather unromantic reasons must have combined with cultural preferences, including the desire for lighter-colored locks. The human hair and horsehair in the wigs was most often dark, so people powdered the wigs to make them seem blonde or white. In spite of the strangeness of the men’s coiffures, there is something of an erotic charge in watching them remove the wigs during moments of relaxation or fatigue.

Banastre Tarleton, the villain of the piece, calls for comment. The real Tarleton is far more noted for his military record during the American War of Independence than for his opposition to the anti-slavery movement, though neither aspect of his life does him credit. According to Wikipedia, he squandered his inheritance on gambling and women (a fact that is alluded to in the film), then went to the New World to seek his fortune. As a cavalry commander, he combined great physical courage with great cruelty. After returning to England, he is said to have boasted that “he had killed more men and ravished more women than any man in America.” Among the reports of his activities as a commander of the British legion in America, he bears responsibility for the massacre of a group of men under a white flag at Waxhaws, Virginia. It is said that he once dug up a dead man, and forced the man’s wife to serve supper to his corpse.

Still, I appreciated the way that Tarleton was presented not as a clownish, mugging villain, but as an intelligent opponent representing not only his own self-interest, (which was certainly key to his political motivation), but also the economic interests of his constituency in Liverpool, a port city that was heavily involved in the slave trade. It is salutary to be reminded that however obviously wrongheaded the Tory position seems to us now, when Wilberforce began his campaign, most people did not support the abolitionist cause. No doubt people in the future will look back on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, shaking their heads in bewilderment at many of the habits we take for granted, and wondering why we couldn’t see how obviously evil and wrong they are.

In any case, I found this movie to be more enjoyable than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, even though Daniel Day-Lewis gave a breathtaking performance in the title role. Lincoln is a much more didactic film, laboring to explain to its audience the details of the U.S. Civil War and the complex political circumstances under which Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The screenplay of Amazing Grace, on the other hand, wisely focuses on the entertaining and inspiring personal story of William Wilberforce, an extraordinary and yet little-known figure in world history who deserves to be better-remembered.