While I was watching A United Kingdom, another recent movie kept coming to mind: Selma. Both movies are directed by black women and star David Oyelowo as a real-life individual who was instrumental in global, racial history. These are superficial similarities, to be sure, but I couldn’t shake the comparison, perhaps because Ava DuVernay’s earlier film about Martin Luther King, Jr. was so clearly a superior exemplar of its genre. Selma is cinema-as-activism, a furious bellow against the unjust system that has repressed African Americans for centuries. In contrast, Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is… polite. It confronts many of the same themes as Selma – even employing Oyelowo in similar ways – but the film is feels safe and cozy when it should be galvanizing. That is, it falls into many of the same traps of other biopics.
Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) is the prince of Bechuanaland, a British protectorate in southern Africa, who meets and falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) while at the end of his studies in the U.K. This being 1947, their interracial relationship is hardly looked upon with charity, save for Ruth’s sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael), who is happy for Ruth, but knows their father won’t approve. Khama is called back to Bechuanaland to take over the kingship from his uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who has acted as regent since the death of Khama’s grandfather twenty years earlier. Khama cannot imagine a life without Ruth, so he proposes to her and she accepts.
Their union has repercussions, represented by Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a British bureaucrat who warns Khama of the unrest in Bechuanaland his marriage is liable to foment. The couple arrives in Africa to a cool reception from Tshekedi and Khama’s sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto), signifying the isolation among the women in which Ruth will be living. Despite familial friction, Khama is voted by his people to remain their leader, and looks into the egregious poverty that has stricken his country, likely as a result of heavy taxation by the British and nearby South Africa, but no economic benefit to show for it.
A local British representative, Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton), attempts to ward off Khama’s sniffing around by calling him back to London, where it is decided that he will be exiled from Bechuanaland for five years. On top of this, Ruth is pregnant and the pain of their separation is getting to them. Khama has to figure out how to get back home to his wife while navigating the political minefield created between his home, the British empire, and the encroachment of apartheid from the South.
A United Kingdom covers a span of 15 years, although you’d be fooled into thinking the events transpire over the course of one. The screenplay, written by Guy Hibbert, compresses a mass of time and events into the film’s two hours, so it is up to Asante and her editors to keep up the pace, which they do so admirably. A United Kingdom never feels boring, as a result, but its large scope has the side effect of almost entirely flattening the characters. Oyelowo’s portrayal of King was as flesh-and-blood man, an intensely flawed individual whose great ego propelled him to both significant achievement as well as considerable infidelity. As Khama, he is given the opportunity to speechify to his people, which Asanti films with relatively few cuts, allowing Oyelowo to inhabit the moment emotionally. His performance is quite good, as the actor seems incapable of giving a bad one, but it is for a character whose rough edges feel as though they have been sanded down.
Pike, whose Oscar-nominated turn in Gone Girl was so complicated and intense, is given almost nothing to work with here, making for one of the film’s gravest weaknesses. As written by Hibbert, Ruth’s main defining characteristic is a superhuman capacity for supporting her husband, even if it means having to drive herself to the hospital when she is in labor. Ruth is merely nice, a quality that is wonderful to have in real life when it is accompanied by others. In A United Kingdom, however, she is restricted to this single trait, particularly once the action shifts to Africa, and she (as a woman in the mid 20th century) suddenly has no part to play. We understand why Khama falls in love with her: she’s beautiful, intelligent, progressive, and good-natured. The film makes a token attempt at creating conflict between Ruth and Khama’s sister, but this is resolved seemingly with no great change in either character. Like many of the conflicts in the film, Ruth’s problematic status as the white queen of Bechuanaland resolves itself passively, so as to better facilitate the narrative.
Asante does know how to film a swoony romance, which she accomplishes both in the foggy mists of London and the beautiful savanna of Bechuanaland. Her gorgeous leads are illuminated beautifully by cinematographer Sam McCurdy – who possesses the apparently rare skill of lighting for both white and black people – setting them against more than a few sunsets during the magic hour. The film shines in its earlier segments because Asante is such a talented director of sweeping emotion, but once the plot veers towards politics, you realize that the mashup of love story and socio-historical document isn’t quite working. The tone set in the first act of the film is so sunny and wholesome that it makes the resolution to the rockier events that follow feel like a foregone conclusion. No matter how difficult things get for the Khamas, there is never any doubt that they will succeed, which obliterates the otherwise high stakes of their situation.
A United Kingdom, for all its worthwhile sentiment about the coming-together of nations against oppression and racism, can’t escape feeling like a watered-down version of its events. The film is a case-in-point of why many biopics would have been better as documentaries, especially in the wake of last year’s OJ: Made in America, I Am Not Your Negro, and DuVernay’s own 13th. The gritty facts may be harder to swallow, but you’ll remember them better than a dime-a-dozen love story.
Historical drama | Fox Searchlight