A United Kingdom dir. Amma Asante (2016)
There’s something about A United Kingdom that feels a little disjointed from time. That’s not a bad thing, but it struck me as the credits started to roll that if this had been released in the late ‘90s or the early ‘00s it would be exactly the sort of prestige end-of-the-year release that would have been made in-house by a studio and coasted to a half a dozen Oscar noms and maybe even a couple of wins.
At the same time, for all the ways it may seem conventional, A United Kingdom as it was made could never have existed in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. It represents a slow, decades-long progression of films set in Africa slowly shifting from having African characters treated as backdrop for the plight of white characters, to being the principal focus of their own stories.
That African main character in this case is Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a young law student originally from Bechuanaland (what is now modern day Botswana) studying in post WWII London. Seretse meets pretty white English clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). They’re both charming and popular A-types who notice each other immediately at a missionary dance. Seretse takes Ruth out on a whirlwind date that ends with a startling confession: he’s actually a prince who is being educated and groomed so that he can one day take over leadership responsibilities from his uncle. Ruth thinks that this will be the end of the relationship, but Seretse’s confession actually means the opposite: despite the very real threats to their physical safety, along with the difficulty of marrying a woman outside his native land, Seretse recognizes a kindred spirit in Ruth and is serious about courting her.
And here in lies the problem with A United Kingdom. The real life Seretse and Ruth had an epic sweeping love story and gave up so many things, including their own families at various points, in order to be with each other. Though Oyelowo and Pike are wonderful actors the chemistry between them doesn’t sizzle and the courtship between them is rushed. About ten minutes into the film Ruth is sitting on the side of the road with all her things waiting for Seretse as her father has banished her from the family home because the man she loves is black. Seretse nobly doesn’t want to continue the relationship if it means separating the woman he loves from her family, but Ruth gives an impassioned speech about how she wants to be with him. Unfortunately it falls flat since at that moment the script has given the audience almost nothing to connect with outside of the fact that Seretse and Ruth both love jazz.
And this is a real pity because if the script doesn’t give Oyelowo and Pike enough time as lovers, it really lets them breathe as a married couple. I almost wish the movie had excised the London scenes entirely and begun with the newly married couple deplaning in Bechuanaland where Ruth sees whites-only signs everywhere and realizes that being a royal in Bechuanaland doesn’t have the same privileges as in her home country. Unfortunately though, that same lack of depth in the script carries over to the rest of the film because while Seretse and Ruth are given arcs and personalties everyone else is given very little to do.
I was a huge fan of Asante’s previous feature Belle, even though I felt that there were some small nitpicks here and there in terms of editing and sequences. Not so in A United Kingdom which shows how Asante’s craft has grown in a few short years. The film is a visual delight and Asante makes up for the lack of romance in the script by boosting the visual romance in the film and shooting her actors like old-fashioned movie stars. It’s too bad the script doesn’t rise to her level, but between Asante and her two stars, A United Kingdom is a pleasure to watch, the kind of classic old-fashioned filmmaking where knowing the beats beforehand means knowing that at the end of the road there will be a prince, a kiss, and a happy ending.