British director Amma Asante’s political period drama A United Kingdom bears all the high watermarks of Oscar caliber cinema, boasting great performances, sumptuous cinematography and a captivating true story but unfortunately is marred by an average screenplay by Guy Hibbert and arrives on the heels of the similarly themed Jeff Nichols film Loving. Well intentioned and earnest in conviction yet a tad perfunctory in terms of editing and delivery, there’s a great story being told in the most by the numbers fashion that it tends to undercut the film’s many virtues. Not since William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement has an important nonfiction story come across as so underwhelming with many obvious trims to what were presumably more fleshed out exchanges between the characters hurting the film instead of helping it.
Set in 1948 London, England before moving over to apartheid stricken South Africa, it tells the true story of the controversial romance and marriage between Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo from Selma) who is on the cusp of becoming the first president of Botswana and Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike) as his queen. Recounting the entanglements encountered by the interracial couple as their mutual families and especially the British and South African governments do everything they can to split them apart including but not limited to forced exile by both governments.
This is the stuff great civil rights dramas are made of, recounting an important chapter in world history and race relations while simultaneously functioning as a comment on our own current political climate. In an effort towards authentically recreating the dilemma, many of the real figures involved including the real house Ruth and Seretse lived in and real extras from the region were utilized, all gorgeously lensed by The Descent cinematographer Sam McCurdy. There’s also some occasional room for spontaneity involving the extras, including one moment where a song is sung to Ruth that turned out to be unplanned.
Performances are of course splendid, reuniting Jack Reacher actors Oyelowo and Pike who many to wrench many emotions from the viewer with their heartfelt and tear streaked soliloquys regarding the opportunistic governments trying to use their controversial marriage for their own mercurial political ends. Oyelowo also looks remarkably like the real Seretse, although I find it a bit curious the actress who plays Ruth’s sister Muriel (Laura Carmichael from Downton Abbey) looks uncannily like the real Ruth. Obviously Carmichael would have been a more authentic casting choice, but you know how studios with star power in mind are. Jack Davenport as the British government rep for South Africa provides a dependable adversary to Oyelowo and Pike’s uphill battle and South African actor Vusi Kunene imbues Seretse’s disgruntled and proud uncle Tshekedi with frustration and an odd touch of sympathy.
Overall A United Kingdom is a good movie but I found myself increasingly frustrated by Jonathan Amos’ editing which tightens the belt around moments that should have been allowed more wiggle room. There’s a rhythm to many scenes where a character says one line before making the abrupt transition to another time and place, jumping around a lot without leaving enough time for many of the film’s events to register or resonate. There’s a genuinely sincere production at work here that keeps getting sandbagged by the bullet point editing approach, which is a shame as it weighs down on the film’s potential dramatic power.
Though different subjects and places completely, my friendly recommendation between this and Jeff Nichols’ Loving would be to go for Nichols’ film first. Both address the same issues of prejudice, ruthless legal battles and at the epicenter a love that transcends ethnic differences but something about Nichols’ film rang truer for not whittling the footage down to the bare essentials. Amma Asante’s a director to watch for, clearly, and A United Kingdom is a relevant film to our times people should see. I just wish the editor didn’t cut it together to fit into the eventual syndicated television time slot.
- Andrew Kotwicki