Review: Omissions leave film good, not amazing

2/7/2007

By Phil Boatwright
The Movie Reporter

Amazing Grace
Stars:
Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Ciaran Hinds, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N’Dour, Micael Gambon, Albert Finney
Director: Michael Apted
Rating: PG
Opens:  Feb. 23

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Not by what’s up on the screen, but by what isn’t.  

The picture is engrossing, with a solid (if staid) performance from its lead. Amazing Grace enlightens while never forsaking the goal of any devout filmmaker: to entertain.

But I was letdown by its neglect of the man who first combined those two words – amazing grace. Considering the title, I thought the film would focus around the author of one of the most stirring hymns ever written. Sadly, we don’t learn much about John Newton.  

Though the always engaging, if blustery, Albert Finney depicts Newton as a guilt-ridden man in a few scenes where he mops a church floor or looks off into oblivion after losing his eyesight (there’s an irony that could have been developed: I once was blind, but now I see), we don’t witness his conversion or come to understand what brought on that reversal, except through a discursive anecdotal monologue. By not focusing the film on Newton’s transformation, the filmmakers discard one of the most affecting conversions in all of history.  

Once again, well-meaning Christian producers have dropped the ball. You’d think such gifted filmmakers as Apted and Knight would be well aware that in movies a picture is worth a thousand words. In this film, we always get the thousand words, while the most powerful imagery is neglected. Because of this neglect, there’s no visceral punch to the production.  

For instance, we hear a man discuss the villainy of chains and shackles, he even puts one around his neck, but we never see people held captive by such devices. A brief flashback could have pictured the life-changing horror undergone by Africans stolen from their homeland. That’s the astonishing aspect of movies, they picture what words fail to reveal.  

We are therefore left with a production that is more TV Masterpiece Theater than majestic theatrical drama. Apted and writer Steven Knight have made a good movie, just not an amazing one.