Similar to Chariots of Fire and Shadowlands in tone, Amazing Grace balances faith and filmmaking in a historical drama that depicts an ordinary Christian doing extraordinary things because of his beliefs.
For those unfamiliar with the lead character, William Wilberforce was elected to British Parliament in the late 18th century at the age of 21. Some years after that, he underwent an experience that brought him back to the Christian faith—to the point where he was prepared to leave politics behind to fully devote his life to God as a clergyman or monk. His friend from college (and future Prime Minister) William Pitt tries to convince Wilberforce to stay in Parliament because he's such a gifted orator, as seen in several debates on the floor. Pitt asks, "Will you use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord or change the world?"
To quote another character in the film, "We suggest you can do both."
The principled Wilberforce makes it clear early on that he is privately opposed to Britain's thriving slave trade, and several prominent abolitionists of the era (Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano) do their best to gain his support. In this film, it is John Newton—a former slave ship captain and the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace"—that ultimately convinces his friend Wilberforce to take up the cause for reasons both moral and spiritual.
And so he does, but at what cost? The British abolitionists become the world's most vocal opponents to slavery, causing Wilberforce to lose popularity with many of his countrymen and colleagues. Some even label him a seditionist—a serious accusation at the time with the newly established United States, an imminent French Revolution, and a mentally ill King George ruling England. Which are precisely the reasons Clarkson suggests to Wilberforce that revolution may be the best way to instigate change.
It's enough to drive a crusader to sickness, as both Wilberforce's health and cause begin to fail about the same time. We know how this story ends, but it's nonetheless compelling to watch the famed abolitionist's uphill battle to maintain his passion and fervor and see his calling through to the end of slavery—a worldwide blight on humankind that still goes on to this day.
The screenplay by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) succeeds in capturing the essence of Wilberforce and his accomplishments, never shying away from the man's faith but never making it the central component either—just as Eric Liddell's refusal to run on the Sabbath was vital but not paramount to Chariots of Fire.
Amazing Grace seems more honest because of such balance, and acclaimed director Michael Apted (whose previous credits include Coal Miner's Daughter, several documentaries, and a James Bond movie) succeeds in rendering the story with authenticity. There's something to be said for a film that succeeds in making Parliamentary legislation suspenseful, even when you know the ultimate outcome. It also helps that chunks of the movie are told in flashback to add urgency and weight to the storytelling—a straight timeline would have been less interesting.