Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Peter Cousens

Stars: Cuba Gooding jr, William Sadler, Bernhard Forcher, David Rasche, Sharon Leal, Terrence Mann, Diane Salinger, Michael Goodwin, Byron Utley, Jubilant Sykes.

This historical drama about a runaway slave’s search for freedom has been thrown into cinemas without any previews or advertising, which is not always a good sign. But Freedom is actually quite a solid drama with some good production values.

Cuba Gooding jr plays Samuel Woodward, a slave who runs away from the tobacco plantation run by Monroe (David Rasche) with his family. Samuel is aided in his escape by members of the underground railroad, an organisation of “God-fearing folks” who help smuggle runaway slaves along a network of safe houses, eventually getting them across the border into Canada and safety and freedom. It was a risky enterprise as helping slaves was against the law. We meet real life characters such as Thomas Garrett (Michael Goodwin), a Quaker who helped run the organisation, and Frederick Douglass (Byron Utley, from The Interpreter, etc), an abolitionist and one of the founding fathers of the Civil Rights movement.

Monroe lures veteran tracker Plimpton (William Sadler from Die Hard 2, etc) out of retirement to pursue Samuel and his family.

A parallel narrative strand is set 100 years earlier, and follows John Newton (Bernhardt Forcher, from Grimm, Supernatural, etc), a sea captain in charge of a slave ship carrying its human cargo from Africa to America. But during a stormy Atlantic crossing which sees many of his charges grow sick and die, Newton undergoes a crisis of conscience and becomes an outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery. He gives a copy of the Bible to a young slave boy, who eventually becomes Samuel’s great grandfather.

But Newton is also best known for writing the haunting hymn Amazing Grace, which has become an anthem for hope and a rallying cry for peaceful change. The story behind the creation of the song was the basis of the Michael Apted film Amazing Grace, which starred Ioan Grufford and Albert Finney as Newton.

Freedom is the first feature film from Australian born actor turned director Peter Cousens, who is well known through his television roles (Sons And Daughters, Return To Eden, etc) and also for his work on the London stage in musicals such as The Phantom Of The Opera, Les Miserables and West Side Story. Cousens juggles the two narrative strands effectively, and he brings plenty of tension to Samuel’s journey, where every stop is fraught with danger and the ever present risk of betrayal or capture. But he essentially brings a white man’s perspective to the history of the institution of slavery and his handling of the material lacks the palpable anger and outrage that Steve McQueen brought to his Oscar winning film. But Cousens suffuses the material with a sense of sympathy for the suffering and injustices of the whole slave trade.

Cousens also helped to write the haunting and evocative music score.

Gooding is another of those actors who has seemingly suffered from a post-Oscar slump. After his Oscar winning turn in Jerry Maguire, a lot of his subsequent films have disappeared straight onto DVD. But here he has found a solid role and he gives a committed and more nuanced performance, and gives Samuel a touch of dignity and strength. And obviously he connected to the script and the themes as he is also on board as one of the producers. Sadler, who often plays the sadistic villain, delivers a more nuanced turn here as the slave tracker who is conflicted by the demands of tracking and killing runaway slaves.

The script from Tim Chey (Gone, Final: The Rapture, etc) draws upon real life events for this gripping period piece dealing with slavery. Freedom is the antithesis of recent films like Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave – apart from one scene in which a runaway slave is brutally beaten, Chey effectively side steps much of the horrors of the treatment of the slaves on the plantation. The original title for the film was Something Whispered, but Freedom is far more evocative and optimistic sounding.



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