Wednesday, April 11, 2007

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

Two movies in one week! At the theatre, I mean. Ah, this is the life. The only things missing are a few nights out at the ballet, saving a couple more for a musical or two. A thumbnail sketch of my perfect life.

But I digress. My cousin emailed me this morning to let me know she'd seen "Amazing Grace", starring a fave of mine, Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd. Plus a marvellous array of other actors I love: Brits Albert Finney and Rufus Sewell, and Irish actors Michael Gambon and Ciaran Hinds. It's directed by Michael Apted, whom I admire for his "7 Up" series of films ( "14 Up" - "42 Up" ), plus several episodes of HBO's "Rome". My cousin encouraged me to see it, probably fearing that it would leave soon. Time flies and it'll be out on DVD, but I cleared my schedule for the evening, hopped on the bus after work and caught the 6:40 show.

"Amazing Grace" follows the political crusade in the English House of Commons to defeat the slave trade. Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament for Hull in Yorkshire who kept bringing his bill before the House for 18 years until it was finally passed in 1807.

Like all visionaries, Wilberforce didn't do 'normal' very well. He collected stray people and animals, preferred having chats with God out on the grounds of his well-appointed country house, spoke to his butler like an equal and felt personally responsible to end one of the economic cornerstones of the British Empire.

Though obviously on his own passionate crusade, Wilberforce had a rather significant figure in his early life - his spiritual counsellor was the cleric John Newton, who wrote the very personal hymn "Amazing Grace". Newton was an ex-ship's master whose cargos were the slave trade in its most human form.

In Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, a wise man figure often points the hero onto the path he must take. But Newton wasn't written into the plot by a writer. He was placed into Wilberforce's life by a Divine Hand. Both amazing and humbling when you think about it.

Of course, Wilberforce wasn't just any English land owner. He was the childhood friend of Pitt the Younger, soon to be Prime Minister (guide with a magical key.) Wilberforce held the privilege of sitting in parliament (the unfamiliar world, since he doesn't act like most others of his ruling class.) He has colitis and subsequent addiction to laudenum (temptation) to pull him away from his goal.

The Dark Moment comes when revolution takes France, war breaks out, and his friend the prime minister must distance himself from seditious Wilberforce. How easy it is to throw our characters into that Black Moment. How horrible to actually live through it. Especially if you lived at the end of the 18th century and the Hero's Journey is still 150 years away from publication.

We ultimately know that slavery ends, so the audience begins the film with the knowledge that we're watching an authentic hero. But I couldn't help thinking many times over the course of the film how easily Wilberforce's life fit into Joseph Campbell's parameters.

If a person could recognize all the signposts of the Hero's Journey in his or her own life, would it make all the pain and suffering any easier to bear? Would being perpetually out of step with one's fellows be easier to tolerate if that meant it was the hero's persona?

Watching "Amazing Grace" tonight left me thinking about all of the real-life Wilberforce's who are born to parents who dream of contentment and joy for their little ones. If parents knew ahead of time that their child was fated to the Hero's Journey, the urge to spare him or her from such a torturous route might leave the world with a lot less heros.

I guess that's why we're only given the story of our lives one day at a time.


Julianne MacLean said...

I so loved this film. I'm still thinking about it almost a week later. And you're so right about the hero's journey, and how interesting it is that it is someone's real life, not just a story. I'll definitely be buying this one when it comes out on DVD.


Christine said...

Oh this sounds awesome. Another one to add to my list!

Annie Mac said...

This sounds like a terrific movie, I can't wait to see it. Interesting thoughts on the hero's journey and how difficult it is to be out of step with others. For some people, I think it's the only way they can live their lives. They are incapable of letting go, of throwing in the towel. To disengage from their cause, to give up and walk away - they might as well be dead.