Film Review: Freedom

Australian musical theatre star, Peter Cousens, has reinvented himself as a film director, and his debut feature is not a cheap slasher horror or gritty suburban crime thriller, but a big budget drama tackling important social and historical issues, shot in the US with a big name cast. Aspiring filmmakers should be jealous. I know I am.

Coming hot on the heels of Django Unchained and other slavery themed productions, it is easy to dismiss Freedom as Twelve Years A Slave-Lite but Cousens’ feature is a very different creature altogether.

Screenwriter Timothy A. Chey runs two plot lines in parallel. The first is set in 1856, following slave Samuel Woodward (Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his family as they escape from a plantation in Richmond, Virginia and begin their dangerous journey to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Not far behind throughout their journey is slave hunter, Plimpton (William Sadler).

Almost 100 years earlier, we meet ship captain John Newton (Bernhard Forcher) who is struggling with his faith and conscience as he transports slaves, including Samuel’s great grandfather, to the New World.

This reviewer found the second plot line to be the least effective. Although developing a human connection to his cargo through a series of incidents at sea, Newton’s final expression of kindness is to pen the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, not save anybody from their hell-like future existence. I suppose the song does provide Samuel and family some comfort and motivation a century later. It may also have helped my understanding of the film had I been aware that John Newton composed the iconic song. Pardon my ignorance, I assumed it was written by God.

Samuel’s tale, on the other hand, is a gripping tale of escape and near recapture, and I was willing Gooding Jnr. and co to get across the border throughout the whole 98 minute runtime.

Although not a musical, Freedom uses music, in particular singing, as a metaphor for the humanity that we all share. I was moved by some of the numbers, sung in their entirety, such as the joyous singalong between the escapees and a troupe of theatre performers, including Australian musical theatre headliner Tony Sheldon. Less successful were a few songs, performed out of context, musical theatre style, especially Samuel’s wife Vanessa (Sharon Leal) breaking into tune whilst walking inside a church. The result was being snapped out of my engrossment and remembering that I was watching a film.

Freedom was shot on location in Connecticut. It looks beautiful, courtesy of cinematographer Dean Cundey (Back to the Future, Apollo 13).

The cast is wonderful. I have no idea how Cousens’ managed to enlist such a lineup for his first feature. Cuba Gooding Jnr. really delivers in his best performance in years as his Samuel struggles between the choice of revenge or freedom. William Sadler is capably menacing as a slave hunter with ethics. Even one of my favourites, Terrence Mann (The Dresden Files, A Chorus Line) makes an appearance.

Peter Cousens has concocted a beautiful and haunting film which will appeal to a “Best Exotic Marigold” audience. Despite its religious undertones which frankly did not bother a non-believer like me, Freedom still has plenty to say about slavery, an issue which is just as relevant now as it was in 1748 and 1856.

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Published in: on September 6, 2014 at 00:26  Leave a Comment  
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