The use of Flashback in Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace (dir. Michael Apted, written by Steven Knight) seems to be the first major film to depict the life and activism of Wilfred Wilberforce. I was reluctant to write any review because I’m not sure of the historical accuracy of Wilberforce’s life. However, from a creative point of view, I find the use of flashbacks interesting.

Many biopics, from made-for-tv movies to big-budget blockbusters, use flashbacks as a creative device. At one extreme you have The Iron Lady, where almost every other scene is the elderly Thatcher remembering her rise and fall. Then there’s the TV movie like Coco Chanel, where flashbacks are used intermittently to show a character still in her prime remembering how she got where she was while preparing a show.

The classic, however, is a film like Gandhi (Dir: David Attenborough, writer: John Briley, 1982), where we start at the death of the main character, then tell the story in sequence, introducing the protagonist just before that fateful first decision is made. But, all these devices open a story toward the end of the story, not in the middle.

Wilberforce’s flashback seems to start midway in his story, years before the climax. “In medias res” is what we call this technique of starting halfway through, but we seldom see history films start in medias res.  In this way, Amazing Grace is more reminiscent of Disney’s “The Emperor’s New Groove” than most biopics.

We start out finding Wilberforce ill, and the doctor has prescribed rest. Perhaps the stress of political failure has made Wilberforce ill. So, the great Wilfred Wilberforce tries to stay away from politics, to resist the flashbacks to his political life.

His present is his lowest ebb, a time when he’s single, feels like a failure, and is ready to give up.   We learn that he has a political life, but the doctor prescribes getting away from it.  While we do have a political flashback that is not inside the love story, most of the flashbacks are presented as part of the conversation between Wilberforce and his future wife, Barbara Ann Spooner.

(A few flashbacks are also presented between him and his other friends, but the activist priest who wrote the title song tends to tell stories that we don’t see.  The wife and the priest are the two who do the most to push the “present” Wilberforce back into action.)

This love story provides a great opportunity for the audience to hear Wilberforce’s story through his own words and the words of his matchmaking friends, and it shows the audience the popular reaction to Wilberforce’s actions through Spooner’s words.

As his friends’ first attempt to match Wilberforce with his future partner, and as the future couple initially rejects their attempts, we are introduced to his choosing health over a failing mission.  When Wilberforce actually becomes acquainted with and falls in love with Barbara Ann Spooner, they stay up all night talking about the past, and the woman in his life reawakens the activist in William Wilberforce.

If I think logically about the story, I’d say it seems to go downhill soon after he gets married. Sure, Wilberforce gains strength and has a son, but the child disappears and the relationship seems to take a backseat. The suspense is more or less gone, we just hear a few speeches and hear about an interesting strategy or two (which seems to hit us like a deus ex-machina.)  The main gist of the story changes entirely, and it’s as if his family life were only a passing right of passage. His wife is still in the wings at times, but she seems to be just another spectator.

Does this change of pace work? It did for me.  It felt disconnected.  Sure, there’s a happily ever after, but perhaps there was a new struggle between family life and parliament.

Why did the writer choose this kind of flashback and then abandon the love story?  Well, I suspect it probably came about from a few rewrites of the script. While Steven Knight is the only credited screenwriter, I’m guessing that other people had input into the story as well.  One person wanted to emphasize the love story, another wanted to end on more of a historically significant high note. Or, maybe the writer had two goals.  Perhaps there was a longer story that entwined politics with personal life for longer, but it had to be shortened.

While the film is entertaining to watch, it’s hard to tell others exactly whether it’s about the campaign, the relationship, or even the song. I think this made it difficult to market the film, and also difficult to promote it via word of mouth.

The tagline seems to say the film is the story behind the song.  It isn’t really.  The preacher who wrote the song (or wrote it according to the film, I’m no expert on that era of history), is about the third or fourth supporting actor.  After Wilberforce, Prime Minister William Pitt, and Lady Barbara Ann Spooner Wilberforce, the preacher might get equal story time to the other activists. (Equiano, Charles Foxx, and Clarkson, are shown to be just as historically important.  Sometimes it’s easy to confuse Charles Foxx with the preacher.)

It seems that the preacher wrote the song long before any of the other activists became involved.  The song itself forms part of the love story and the activism story, as Wilberforce supposedly has a nice voice when he sings it, and that voice is supposedly what makes him a great activist.  When he sings that song, it seems to give him strength and help him make decisions.  But, it still feels artificial to say that the story is about that song.

I question the use of flashbacks to emphasize a love story only to become more of a legal battle.  I would end on a more personal note, seeing the nature of the bulk of the story. The change of tactic makes it seem more like a miniseries than a film.  But, despite this apparent story flaw, the story was still captivating, memorable, and effective.  Perhaps too many years of film analysis have created a problem that wasn’t there, as many other people seemed to enjoy the film too.

There are some historical questions I have.  Were the Tories the party of slavery, as the film seems to suggest?  Was the strategy of capturing neutral ships something that eventually led to the war of 1812?  Was it really effective?  Did his friend really suggest revolution, and did Wilberforce really reject it because of allegiance to the king?  Was Pitt as portrayed?  I suppose I’ll have to turn to books for the answers.  These books will not likely be journals of the characters involved, but rather narratives presented almost like a flashback.

As most first drafts of history are written after someone becomes famous, or shortly after they die, it’s easy to see why they see why history books follow a flashback structure.  While plays tend to be more ab ovo, most history is written in medias res, just like Amazing Grace.  Our story isn’t over.

Amazing Grace is an entertaining and educating film, suitable for people of all ages, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone, (assuming that it is historically accurate.)