Film Review – A United Kingdom
A United Kingdom
Seretse Khama was born into one of the royal families of the then British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana). Although observed as a king, Khama fought for a democratic state free of British rule. He would go on to accomplish just that, and in 1966 the newly formed country voted Khama as their first president.
Being educated in South Africa and the U.K., Khama created an international controversy when he married a white British woman, Ruth Williams, and brought her to live in his home country. Khama and Williams would face pressure from the African leadership (particularly Khama’s uncle) because the marriage was deemed a symbol of disrespect toward their culture and traditions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the British government also disapproved of the union, partly because of apartheid law, and also because it risked their stake in the African resources that the country desperately needed following World War II. Needless to say, the British and African opposition proved to be difficult for the couple, resulting in Khama actually being banished from Bechuanaland for a number of years.
This story of love running into a blitzkrieg of political and racial barriers is tailor made for the big screen. The hardship that Seretse and Ruth had to deal with is something that should be told. Unfortunately, A United Kingdom (2016) doesn’t really take that story as far as it should have. Written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Amma Asante, the film doesn’t necessarily do anything bad. The biggest mistake is in its straightforward, very routine approach. This has all the tropes of your standard, run of the mill “prestige” picture. Characters talk bluntly, themes are hammered in with little subtlety, and our protagonists deliver big emotional speeches with a rousing score reminding us how we should “feel.” It looks and sounds just like any other movie of its kind, it lacks a unique identity.
During a key scene, Seretse (David Oyelowo) gives a speech to his countrymen asking them to believe in him as a suitable leader despite marrying a white woman. The speech is big and loud, and Oyelowo delivers it with passion and fervor. But because the production paints so far within the lines, the emotional impact isn’t as strong as it should be. Once we see tears running down Oyelowo’s face we realize this moment was made to be edited into an Oscar montage.
The casting here could not have been better. Oyelowo is a fine actor and does good work as Khama. Just like he did in Selma (2014), Oyelowo has a screen persona that feels distinguished and commanding. Rosamund Pike does an even better job as Ruth. Where Oyelowo gives loud speeches, Pike is tasked with delivering a smaller, more nuanced performance. Her strength is in Ruth’s quiet scenes, such as her startled reaction when Seretse’s family condemns her for taking the position that should’ve belonged to one of their own race. Oyelowo and Pike are both talented and highly skilled, but I’m not sure if they were a perfect match together. In a story about “love conquering all,” there’s a strange lack of heat between the two. They play their courtship as designed, but I never truly bought that they were head over heels for each other. Their scenes, such as when Seretse takes Ruth dancing, never had the spark that we would see from great movie couples. Perhaps this is due to the narrative bustling through their early relationship to get to the scenes in Africa and the political ramifications. They felt more like best friends than lovers.
Growing up in the American education system, I’m fully aware how race plays a part in this country’s political system. One of the more interesting facets of A United Kingdom was seeing how racism operated within the U.K. government, especially its involvement with African apartheid. Alistair Canning and Tom Felton portray British diplomats in Bechuanaland, and their interactions with Khama are representative of the casual racism that plagued the era. Their attitude of “We represent refinement and progress” is incredibly off putting. Seeing the fate of Seretse and Ruth being discussed in British parliament thousands of miles away is also disturbing. For Seretse and Ruth to stick together during all of this goes to show how much they believed in each other.
I wish I enjoyed A United Kingdom more than I did. It’s timely, it’s important, and the people it focuses us deserve to be remembered. But the presentation is so by the numbers, so familiar, that it reads more like a book report than an emotional cinematic experience. Sure, it looks good. The costumes and art design are all high quality, but the beating heart underneath never made its presence known.