Amazing Grace (2006 film)

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Not to be confused with The Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Apted
Produced by
Written by Steven Knight
Music by David Arnold
Cinematography Remi Adefarasin
Edited by Rick Shaine
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 16 September 2006 (Toronto)
  • 23 February 2007 (US wide)
  • 23 March 2007 (UK)
Running time 118 minutes
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget US$29,000,000
Box office US$32,120,360[1]

Amazing Grace is a 2006 American-British biographical drama film directed by Michael Apted, about the campaign against slave trade in the British Empire, led by William Wilberforce, who was responsible for steering anti-slave trade legislation through the British parliament. The title is a reference to the hymn "Amazing Grace". The film also recounts the experiences of John Newton as a crewman on a slave ship and subsequent religious conversion, which inspired his writing of the poem later used in the hymn. Newton is portrayed as a major influence on Wilberforce and the abolition movement.

The film premiered on 16 September 2006 at the Toronto Film Festival, followed by showings at the Heartland Film Festival, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the European Film Market, before opening in wide US release on 23 February 2007,[1] which coincided with the 200th anniversary of the date the British parliament voted to ban the slave trade.


In 1796 William Wilberforce is severely ill and taking a recuperative holiday in Bath, Somerset, with his cousin, Henry Thornton. It is here that William is introduced to his future wife, Barbara Spooner. Although he initially resists any romantic overtures, she convinces him to relate the story of his career.

The story flashes back 15 years to 1782, and William recounts the events that led him to where he is now. Beginning as a young, ambitious, and popular Member of Parliament (MP), he experiences a religious enlightenment and aligns himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England. William contemplates leaving politics to study theology, but is persuaded by his friends William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Olaudah Equiano that he will be more effective doing the work of God by taking on the unpopular and dangerous issue of the abolition of the British slave trade. His conviction in the cause deepens following a meeting with his former mentor John Newton (introduced sweeping a church floor dressed in sackcloth) who is said to live "in the company of 20,000 ghosts... slaves". As a former slave ship captain turned Christian, he deeply regrets his past life and the effects on his fellow man. Newton urges William to take up the cause.

Pitt becomes Prime Minister and William becomes a key supporter and confidant. Pitt gives William the opportunity to present a bill before the house outlawing the slave trade. William's passionate campaigning leads him to become highly unpopular in the House of Commons. He is opposed by a coalition of MPs representing vested interests of the slave trade in London, Bristol, Glasgow, and Liverpool led by Banastre Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence. Despite popular support and the assistance of an unlikely ally in the form of Charles James Fox, William's bill to abolish the slave trade goes down to defeat. Afterward, the film portrays Pitt as one of his few friends and allies remaining in Parliament, however even their relationship becomes strained. Pitt, now facing the stresses of leading a shaky coalition during the French Revolutionary Wars, tells William that his cause must now wait for a more stable political climate.

William keeps up the fight but after years of failure he is left exhausted and frustrated that he was unable to change anything in the government. Believing his life's work has been in vain, he becomes physically ill (in the film he is depicted as suffering from chronic colitis which causes him to become addicted to laudanum prescribed for the crippling pain), which brings the story back up to 1797. Having virtually given up hope, William considers leaving politics forever. Barbara convinces him to keep fighting because there is no other person who is willing or able to do so. A few days afterward, William and Barbara marry. Several years pass with no further success. William's wife and new children provide him with the support and strength needed to carry on the fight.

Finally, with a renewed hope for success William devises a backdoor method of slowly weakening the slave trade through seemingly innocuous legislation. Aided by Thornton, Clarkson, and new ally James Stephen and cheered on by the now terminally ill Pitt, he reintroduces his bill to abolish the slave trade. In time, after the 20-year campaign and many attempts to bring legislation forward, he is eventually responsible for a bill being passed through Parliament in 1807, which abolishes the slave trade in the British Empire forever.

Historical inaccuracies[edit]

Prince William, the Duke of Clarence was not a member of the House of Commons, but was, beginning in 1789, a member of the House of Lords, where he did speak against the abolition of the slave trade. Prior to being made a duke like his elder brothers and receiving a similar Parliamentary grant, Prince William had put pressure on his reluctant father by threatening to run for the House of Commons. This prospect had horrified his father, George III, who in May 1789 made him a duke and thus ineligible for the House of Commons. Wilberforce addresses the Duke of Clarence as "Your Grace", which is not correct; as a prince, William's honorific would always have been "Your Royal Highness".[citation needed]

In one early scene, Clarence wagers his black slave coachman against Wilberforce in a card game. It is unlikely, that Clarence owned any domestic slaves at this time, as Somersett's Case in 1772 had virtually eliminated slavery in England. Furthermore, as the same scene is set in 1782, the Duke would have been serving in the Royal Navy. (Indeed, George Washington, in that same year, endorsed a plot to capture the Prince in New York.[2][3])

The film briefly refers to William's founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In reality, this post-dated the abolition debate by many years (1824).

Charles James Fox appears in Commons at the passage of the abolition bill, but he died in 1806, the year before the bill was passed. The speech given comparing Wilberforce and Napoleon's sleep was actually by Solicitor-General Sir Samuel Romilly.[4] Fox was the younger son of a baron, and his title was "The Honourable Charles Fox" — not, as in the film, "Lord Charles Fox". Although portrayed as somewhat elderly and played by the sexagenarian actor Michael Gambon, Fox was in reality only ten years older than William Pitt and in his mid-30s when Pitt became Prime Minister.

Banastre Tarleton, later a baronet, was never a lord, as titled in the film. Furthermore, he is addressed as General Tarleton in the Hansard.[5][6]

Various ships in the film fly the flag of the British East India Company despite the fact that that flag was not used outside the East Indies. When crossing the Atlantic, these ships would instead fly the British ensign.

In one scene Wilberforce, known as a fine singer, sings the first verse of "Amazing Grace". The verses written by John Newton were not associated with the now familiar melody until much later.

In a scene after Wilberforce's wedding (1797), John Newton is depicted as aged and blind when dictating his "confession" of his involvement in the slave trade, whereas Newton had authored Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, which he described as his confession, some nine years earlier in 1788.[7]



The film was shot primarily in Hull, Yorkshire. Baker's Quay, which forms part of the Parliament Docks on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, was used as a backdrop against which to recreate the atmosphere of the East India Docks in London circa 1780. Shooting took place during October 2005 and involved the tall ships, Kaskelot, Earl of Pembroke, Johanna Lucretia and Phoenix.[8] During January 2006, the scenes from The Houses of Parliament were shot at the 1743 Church within Chatham Historic Dockyard. The wedding scene was filmed at Garsington Church.[9]

A number of outside scenes were shot at the former Greenwich Hospital, now part of the University of Greenwich and around Salisbury, Wiltshire.


Box office[edit]

Amazing Grace brought in a little over $4 million at the box office over its opening weekend of 23–25 February 2007, making it the 10th-highest grossing film for the weekend, behind such new releases as The Astronaut Farmer and The Number 23. The film had grossed $21,250,683 in the United States as of 14 June 2007. Worldwide box office as of 26 August 2007, stood at $32,050,774.[1]

Critical response[edit]

Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 70% based on review from 122 critics, 85 of which were positive. According to the website, the film is "your quintessential historical biopic: stately, noble, and with plenty of electrifying performances."[10]

Philip French described the film as "not exactly innovative" and compared it to "earnestly worthy prewar Warner Brothers cinebiographies". Overall he called it "a very decent contribution to the present bicentennial celebrations of the parliamentary bill that outlawed the slave trade in the British empire."[11] Wally Hammond writing for Time Out singled out Benedict Cumberbatch's performance for praise saying his performance "quietly upstaged" the fine performance of Gruffudd.[12]



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Amazing Grace (2007)". Box Office Mojo. 6 August 2011. Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  2. ^ George Washington writing to Colonel Ogden, 28 March 1782, quoted in Allen, p. 31 and Ziegler, p. 39.
  3. ^ "Letter to Matthias Ogden, 28 March 1782" in the Gilder Lehrman Collection, published online by The Claremont Institute. Retrieved 11 April 2008.
  4. ^ Carey, Brycchan. "William Wilberforce (1759–1833)". British Abolitionists. Brycchan Carey. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  5. ^ "Abolition of the Slave Trade". The Hansard (UK). UK Parliament. 10 June 1806. p. 586. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  6. ^ "Author: Mr Banastre Tarleton". The Hansard (UK). UK Parliament. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  7. ^ Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2005. p. 130-132.
  8. ^ Full details of the filming can be found at Gloucester Docks and the Sharpness Canal website – Filming "Amazing Grace" and details of the ships used at Square Sail on the Canal.
  9. ^ "St Mary, Garsington". A Church Near You. Archbishops' Council. Retrieved 1 July 2010. 
  10. ^ "Amazing Grace (2007)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. 
  11. ^ Philip French (September 22, 2007). "Amazing Grace". Observer. Archived from the original on 2014-02-08. 
  12. ^ Wally Hammond (March 23, 2007). "Amazing Grace". Time Out. Archived from the original on 2014-02-08. 

External links[edit]