Well-Intentioned, But Lacking: Our Review of ‘A United Kingdom’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - February 24, 2017
Well-Intentioned, But Lacking: Our Review of ‘A United Kingdom’

In 2013, Amma Asante’s sophomore film, Belle, established her as a filmmaker on the rise. The visually sumptuous Belle took viewers back to the 18th century and examined the fuzzy logic binding notions of racial identity. Asante’s latest film, A United Kingdom, is an ideal thematic successor. This time Asante uses the 20th century as a lens to explore similar racial, political, and romantic themes.

A United Kingdom is the true story of husband and wife, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Seretse is an African student who is studying law at Oxford University. Shortly before returning home, Seretse meets Ruth, a white middle-class office clerk (and soon to be the love of his life). As if their interracial romance wasn’t already taboo, there is an additional complication: Seretse is the prince of Bechuanaland (the country that is now Botswana). After completing his studies in London, Seretse is to return home to rule Bechuanaland. From the outside looking in, everyone sees Seretse and Ruth’s marriage as a selfish act. Their interracial union has political ramifications that affect Bechuanaland, neighbouring South Africa, and the English government. Forced to choose between their country and their marriage, Seretse and Ruth must weigh the cost of their love against the potential political fallout.

A United Kingdom is a bio-pic, a social commentary, and most importantly, a love story. While Asante does her best to service all three aspects of the film, it’s the love story that suffers. From the audience’s perspective, Seretse and Ruth fall madly in love without speaking a word to each other. Their eyes meet from across the room and that’s it, they’re in love. The film skims over Ruth and Seretse’s courtship to get to their relationship’s political ramifications. Fast tracking the relationship has a cost because minimal time is spent on developing their romance. The romantic beats happen so fast that they don’t carry emotional heft. We know the couple loves each other because they say they say so, not because those feelings are earned in the viewer’s eyes. Considering this film is about a man forced to choose between his wife and his nation, Asante isn’t all that concerned with making the viewer get why his love runs so deep.

Part of the problem with the movie is that it has to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Ruth and Seretse were real people and the film is chained to their lives’ timeline. Asante sacrifices taking a deep dive into the nitty gritty of the characters’ lives in order to hit numerous historical checkpoints. A United Kingdom lands somewhere closer to a Ken Burns documentary than a gripping love story/biopic.

A United Kingdom spends a good chunk of its running time reflecting on race without saying anything of consequence. Ruth’s family threatens to disown her if she marries Seretse and then they disappear from the movie. In another scene, hooligans want to fight Seretse for walking down the street with Ruth. We’ve seen these moments handled with more depth in countless films on race. We get it, racists are assholes. A United Kingdom never goes any further than the perfunctory, “Racism is bad,” stance. When we arrive at the film’s happy ending, so much ground is covered with so few resolutions it feels like the movie cheated. I understand that life worked out well for the real Ruth and Seretse. However, for movie Ruth and movie Seretse, much of their triumph doesn’t feel earned.

The film still has its moments. David Oyelowo is an all-world talent who is poised to dominate awards season chatter for years to come. His affability made Disney’s cliché ridden feel-good film, Queen of Katwe, more entertaining than it had any right to be. A United Kingdom’s stilted structure barely gives Oyelowo much space to spread his wings. Barely! Halfway through the film, Seretse stands before his people to deliver a speech. Asante captures the moment without fancy camerawork or a rousing score. Instead, it’s just Oyelowo unleashed, and it’s a sight to behold. Few actors can match Oyelowo’s otherworldly ability to convey conviction. It’s a knockout moment that makes the rest of the film feel hollow and lacking.

As Ruth, Pike is given much less to do. Pike mostly darts from scene to scene wearing looks of concern on her face. There are flashes of warmth between Ruth and Seretse but the film never lingers on them long enough to evoke a sense of their passion. Jack Davenport and Tom Felton show up as cartoonishly-villainous diplomats. It’s often difficult to discern whether Davenport’s intention is to excommunicate Seretse or tie Ruth to a railroad track. Pike, Davenport, and Felton are all capable actors, however, the film’s script doesn’t offer any of them much to work with.

Sometimes a disappointing movie is harder to sit through than a bad movie. Several notches above bad, A United Kingdom is still too shallow and reductive to qualify as good. The elements that stood out in Belle are nowhere to be found here: The actors lack chemistry, emotional resolutions don’t feel earned, and the film tackles race with a hammer rather than a chisel. Given the film’s promising director, strong cast, and the socially relevant themes, A United Kingdom qualifies as a major let down.

 

 

 

This post was written by

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).