The suitably moving, polished, and elegantly composed romantic historical drama A United Kingdom reinforces my belief that filmmaker Amma Asante is a still rising talent worth keeping an eye on, even if this follow-up to her resplendent, slept on 2013 effort Belle feels like a bit of an overall letdown. It’s not Asante’s fault, or even the fault of the film’s real life influences, but of material that deals with interracial romance and prejudices in ways that aren’t as pointed, immediate, and boundary pushing as more recent films on the subject like Jeff Nichols’ Loving or even this week’s horror-comedy Get Out. Still, for the kind of old school prestige picture that it’s trying to be, it’s a fine example of the genre.
In post World War II England, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a black man, studies at a prestigious university far away from his native home in Botswana. While there, he begins a relationship with a white secretary, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Shortly after their first date and certainly not their last brush with racial prejudices towards their coupling, Ruth learns that Seretse is the king of Bostswana, and that he will be returning to his homeland shortly to assume the throne, currently held by his uncle. Firmly in love with him, Ruth agrees to follow Seretse and leave her family behind, but their relationship causes even more turmoil in Botswana than it probably would have in England. With segregation on the rise in Botswana thanks to British influence and militarily aggressive, neighbouring South Africa moving closer and closer towards apartheid, no one with any degree of power in the UK or Botswana wants to see the equitable and inclusive minded Seretse take control. Things become more difficult for the couple shortly after Ruth becomes pregnant and Seretse is duped into a diplomatic mission back to the UK that results in him unwittingly getting banished from his homeland, seemingly for the rest of his life.
Despite more than a handful of dramatically clichéd moments contained within the screenplay from Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky), the tortured romantic foundation of A United Kingdom is sound. Seretse and Ruth are depicted as humble, humane, and unworthy of the obstacles placed in their way. It’s not merely a simplistic black and white romance, but also a story of economic interests getting involved with matters of the heart, adding a twist that most films on such a subject would have likely overlooked. Not only is the push to drive Seretse and Ruth apart driven by prejudice, but the entire social structure of segregation in Botswana is integral to a British mining concern that’s worth millions to the UK government. Sure, these economic concerns are personified by the almost moustache twirling pair of white British villains (played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton), but that added layer is appreciated. It helps to underline just how institutionalized racism can be, and not just a product of ill informed, ignorant prejudices. The villains of A United Kingdom aren’t ignorant bigots, but more frighteningly they’re people who know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Oyelowo (who also serves as a producer here) and Pike turn in fine performances, working just as well separately as they do together. While they establish a loving relationship in the early going, the material and their performances become more entrancing over their time apart. Oyelowo looks anguished with every setback and political manoeuvre, while Pike imbues Ruth with a great amount of strength. She knows that as her husband’s de facto representative in Botswana, she has to appear strong – even though her heart is breaking – if she ever wants her family to become reunited.
As with Belle, Asante shows an affinity for striking visual period details and cadences, and a continued fascination with themes of race and identity. Where A United Kingdom lets her down, however, is in the script’s more historical than personal approach. Try as she might to make the romance and racial issues seem grand and immediate, Asante can’t quite get to the heart of what makes Seretse and Ruth tick. They love each other, and we know where they stand, but we only see them as being significant to a larger picture of an increasingly volatile Botswana and not nearly enough as individuals with their own agency. They mean a lot to each other, and their partnership means a lot on a global scale, but we never find out what they mean to themselves. This might strengthen the film’s view of racism as an insidious construct with wide reaching repercussions, but it dampens the romance and family dynamic. They seem like interesting likable people. I just wish I knew a little bit more about them before and during their relationship.
Asante looks to continue in a similar filmmaking path to Belle and A United Kingdom with her yet-to-be-released fourth feature Where Hands Touch, another period romance, this time between a German SS officer and a mixed race woman. She has provided her own screenplay for Where Hands Touch, which could alleviate some of the problems of the still mostly fine A United Kingdom, but it also sets off a bit of an alarm that Asante might be doing too much of the same thing. I don’t want to say that she’s repeating herself or that she’s in danger of only being called on to do period romances that deal with race. Maybe she’s just really interested in those narratives, but she’s a talented filmmaker that should be getting more of a chance with other types of stories. A United Kingdom isn’t a step backwards, but more of a step sideways; a picture that’s competently made by someone passionate and well versed in the core issues. It’s solid, basically entertaining, and well acted and directed, but still underwhelming.
A United Kingdom opens in Toronto at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas.
Check out the trailer for A United Kingdom: