‘A United Kingdom’ is an extraordinary story that needs more time
Directed by: Amma Asante
Written by: Guy Hibbert
Starring: David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike
“A United Kingdom” – Effective love stories stir emotion. Effective historical dramas help enlighten.
In a recent interview, David Oyelowo (“Selma” (2014), “A Most Violent Year” (2014)) said that after reading the book “Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation”, he wanted to play Seretse Khama on the big screen and then turned to his friend, Amma Asante (“Belle” (2013)), to direct the film. In 2017, his wish became reality, as Oyelowo plays the real life, inspirational leader of Bechuanaland (and later named Botswana) in an historical drama that is rooted in a love story. A love story against all odds. Seretse – a black, African prince - married a white, English woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), and almost everyone that the couple knew opposed their union, but due to their determination, they helped change history in completely unexpected ways.
Oyelowo said, “The film illustrates the power of love. It’s as simple as that.”
“A United Kingdom” does truly enlighten the audience on a little known story, but the movie spends so much time on the vast saga of Seretse and Ruth’s winding political journey, Asante simply does not provide enough space for their personal love story to emote on-screen.
Their journey, however, is an intriguing one, to say the least.
The film begins in 1947 London, and Seretse relaxes at a dance after a difficult boxing match just a few hours before, and Ruth accompanies her sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael), to the same ballroom. Seretse and Ruth meet and immediately hit it off, although complications do arise on their second date. Seretse explains that he is Bechuanaland’s prince and has duties to his homeland. Distance and his responsibilities are not an issue with Ruth, and with loving eyes, mutual respect, laughs, and fun, the pair enjoy dating for a few more weeks and generate internal sunshine in England’s dreary, foggy surroundings.
They soon marry, move to Africa, and the film turns from some local disdain of their interracial relationship to an outright, international incident. Asante introduces elements of racism, big and small from both Europe and Africa. The bigotry equally appears as occasional, contemptuous looks, a matter of fact statements (like blacks are not allowed to drink alcohol) and highly charged political stances. With dated, racist outrage attempting to thwart the couple from all sides, the overwhelming feeling is that Seretse and Ruth need to possess extraordinary determination to fight the external forces moving against them.
Plenty of antagonists – such as British diplomats and their wives – appear, and their posh words and cultured etiquette blend with snarly disparagements reminiscent of James Bond villains. Although, do not be fooled. Goldfinger, Blofeld and Le Chiffre are exceedingly more intelligent than this ignorant lot in “A United Kingdom”. Thankfully, this gives Seretse and Ruth distinct advantages, but they still need to trudge through the muck to hopefully find salvation. Not only for their relationship, but for the future of Bechuanaland.
This potentially bright future travels through a maze of dogmatic bureaucracy, and the screenplay does capture these sometimes-predictable/sometimes-very-unpredictable twists. The problem is with only a runtime of 1-hour 51-minutes, the screenplay zips from one historical roadblock after another without room for the plot points to breathe. One minute, the country’s mineral rights appear front and center, and the next includes arguments in British Parliament. Political red tape, economic dependencies and disapproval from South Africa block Seretse and Ruth’s happy existence, and unfortunately, the narrative rushes through the precious, small moments that are needed to establish Oyelowo and Pike’s chemistry.
For example, while the couple walks London’s streets, Ruth comments that she wishes that they could see the stars through the cloudy British skies. Seretse quickly adds that the stars are wondrous in Bechuanaland. When they make roots in Africa, the movie, unfortunately, never provides that magic, looking-at-the-stars moment for the two. Instead, the movie audience receives a random 1.5 second shot of a starry, African evening inserted from nowhere, seemingly as a last-minute add to tie up a loose end.
Well, “A United Kingdom” did not seem to miss loose ends on Seretse and Ruth’s fight for their marriage, and successfully chronicles - and shines a light on - their story. Asante even went the extra mile (literally and figuratively) by actually filming in their original home in Bechuanaland (Botswana). On the other hand, when any on-screen couple decides to spend the rest of their lives together at a film’s 12-minute mark, a story can feel hurried, and then it becomes difficult to emotionally buy-in.
What’s that old saying? I need more time. During this movie, I needed more time.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.