Wilberforce was a member of the so-called ‘Clapham Sect’, a small group of upper-class evangelical Christians who attended Holy Trinity Church, Clapham. For twenty years he was the most visible leader of the group of abolitionists in the House of Commons, and his moment of triumph came on March 25th 1807, when the bill to abolish the slave trade received royal assent. Slavery itself continued in the British Empire for another quarter of a century, not being finally outlawed until three days before Wilberforce’s death in 1833.
This movie is a triumph. Yes, like all movies it takes liberties with the story; it makes Thomas Clarkson into a rather lovable drinking libertarian, and it puts language in John Newton’s mouth that seems very unlike what we know of him from his surviving correspondence (which is enormous). There are a few other historical inaccuracies which were obviously conceived as part of the quest for a ‘good flick’.
But despite these minor flaws, the true humanity of Wilberforce, his devotion to the cause, and the price he paid for it, shine through clearly. Ioan Gruffudd does a fine job of portraying the great reformer in all his vulnerability, and Romola Garai puts in a wonderful performance as Barbara Spooner, who he eventually marries; Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, and Ciaran Hinds also add their considerable talents to the top-drawer cast. The relationship between Wilberforce and his friend William Pitt the younger, who became Prime Minister of England at the age of 24 and died of liver disease in his early forties, is wonderfully depicted. T
he cinematic depiction of eighteenth century London is glorious to behold. And I dare you to keep a dry eye at the moment near the end, when the House of Commons finally passes the bill to end the slave trade!
After I saw this movie, I was moved to write a little ballad about Wilberforce and the fight against the slave trade. The words are a bit rough yet, but I’ll put them up in a day or two. Meanwhile, go and see this movie! Treat yourself!