Saturday, December 27, 2008

Amazing Grace

"Amazing Grace" (Michael Apted, 2006) Anyone who has seen Michael Apted's continuing series of "Up" documentaries (starting with "7 Up" and continuing every seven years to the latest installment "49 Up") has experienced Apted's best work. His series examining the lives of British citizens of different classes over the course of their lives is an amazing cross-section of life and the versatility and resiliency of the human psyche. That so many of the participants chose to continue having Apted film them through their disappointmnets and middle years is a credit to his abilities as a film-maker, interviewer, and a human being.

Okay. Having said that, it's a quite different matter when dealing with Apted's "fiction films." More often than not, he takes on dramatized versions of real events and tries to convey a sense of "what it was like." At the same time, his fascination with other cultures and portraying them have been his strong suit. You look at his films and it's very diverse: upper-crust British society and a culture clash with American sensibilities in "
Agatha," the portrayal of life in Appalachia in "Coal Miner's Daughter," Native American conflicts with the Modern Age in "Thunderheart," City versus Country in "Continental Divide," American Capitalism versus Communist bureacracy in "Gorky Park," a look at a feral child in "Nell," or the great-ape community of "Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey." He even took time out to look at the effect of industrialization on a Kazakstanian country in "The World Is Not Enough."

The trouble is he tends to look at these clashes and communities as if he were filming it through a microscope rather than a camera. The approach is clinical and devoid of the particulars of film-language to convey attitude or nuance. So, his movies are usually very "chilly," and their success rides on the abilities of the actors to bleed life and human passion into the lab environment. So, "
Coal Miner's Daughter" with the phenomenal casting of Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm, and (eerily) Beverly D'Angelo as Patsy Cline is still his best film. The weak script of "Gorillas in the Mist" scuttled one of Sigourney Weaver's best performances and the life-like make-up work of Rick Baker. His Bond film, "The World Is Not Enough" tried to be too many things to seem coherent.

And so, "
Amazing Grace." If it were a document applying William Wilberforce for saint-hood, I might understand. But, instead it's a motion picture that is easy on the conflict in order to soft-peddle the conversion of Parliament to an anti-slavery vote. The drama is so bloodless that even Albert Finney can't eke out any tears for his performance. And despite the presence of CiarĂ¡n Hinds and Toby Jones as the respectful (too respectful) opposition, one is left pondering why, when telling a story of the evils of slavery, we have to watch two hours of white guys wringing their hands—as if they were the ones who were suffering. The wrong story is being told, even though the story is Wilberforce's. And it's hard to buy into the self-congratulatory mood of the film, knowing that the "freed" slaves were then cast into the lowest rungs of the British Class system. No one invited them to their own celebration.

"Amazing Grace," though sweet a sound, is still preaching to the choir.

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