A United Kingdom (2016)

What the world needs now is love. Not just the title of the classic 1960s song, but also a fact that feels truer than ever in the world’s current state. Hate and fear are seeping out of people’s heads and the screens of the internet, spilling over from thought into action. Sometimes films are as important for their cultural timing as for their quality as art. At times like these, a film that shows how love trumps hate, how boundaries can be broken, how unity can fight against division and win, is more than welcome. Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is such a film, but unfortunately it doesn’t carry the force it could and should have. It’s undoubtedly a lovely shot crowd pleaser, with moments that might elicit a fist pump with a tear in the eye, but its message falls short.

This is Asante’s second foray into historical drama after Belle, and again it’s a examination of British identity wrapped up in a love story. It’s a study of racism, classism and sexism; a romance of race and privilege. The film centres around the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), Prince of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) who is studying in London, and a working class clerk, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The pair meet at a London Missionary Society dance and fall in love after a fervent across-the-room glance. Their interracial romance brings disapproval from both their family and the British government, with the latter concerned with the effect it might have on plans for their protectorate. Nevertheless, the couple marry and plan to start their new life together in Africa. But the Empire doesn’t take it lightly, not least because apartheid is coming to the fore in neighbouring South Africa. As the couple become pawns in the game of international politics, Seretse must outmaneuver the villainous minister Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), convince his regent Uncle and his people to accept a white woman as their queen, and assure them that he is still the man to lead them out from imperialist rule and into a brighter future.

Asante directs the film with the sweep and feel of the old fashioned; an epic romance with the strings and spinning newspapers of a classic Hollywood melodrama that skillfully mixes the personal and the political. She expertly contrasts the dingy rooms of 1950s grey and hazy London with the beautiful orange landscapes of Botswana, making great use of the country’s special light. Asante is primarily an actor’s director though, and she teases fine performances out of her cast. While not on the level of her Gone Girl performance, Pike expertly shows the vulnerability, strength and determination that all mingle behind the stiff-upper-lipped exterior of Ruth Williams, but it’s Oyelowo’s performance that’s the standout. He builds on the magnetic oratory skills he displayed in Selma, adding bursts of feeling that the sensitive Seretse struggles to contain and that give the film its emotional core.

The film suffers when Seretse and Ruth are apart, with the chemistry between Oyelowo and Pike the spark that really fires it. When it delves into politics and wider society, the dive is only surface deep, with motivations and actions very lightly drawn with strokes as broad as the African horizon. The real complexity of the story on offer is obscured beneath a layer of saccharinity. But it’s a film that’s practically impossible not to cheer. It succeeds most where it avoids on-the-nose dialogue and interaction to instead focus on the smaller moments that tell a larger tale.

That’s why, even though it shares many themes and important cultural timing with star David Oyelowo’s earlier film Selma, that was a film that’ll be shown in classrooms, while this is a film watched on a Sunday afternoon with parents.

A United Kingdom
Director: Amma Asante
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport
Rating: ★★★

[This post first appeared on Filmblerg]

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