Director: Amma Asante
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport
This year, as one might readily have anticipated, awards seasons is going to be about race. Whether the industry felt shamed by #Oscarsowhite (it should have) or whether this is a genuine reflection of our increasingly fractured times, the divides between us are now being brought to the table. Cinema has always reflected the cultural climate (and even helped shape it), thus, over the coming months, several earnest contenders on the subject of blackness are lined up for our consideration; Loving, The Birth Of A Nation, Chi-Raq, Moonlight… But first A United Kingdom, a film which, despite my high hopes, will likely end up the runt of the litter when it’s time for handing out the statuettes. Except at the BAFTAs, where it could feasibly clean up.
Why only the BAFTAs? It’s saddening to report that this is about as politely British and softened a passion project as I’ve encountered in quite some time. Director Amma Asante is a potent voice. Her similarly themed period drama Belle from two years ago was one of the recent better examples of its kind exactly for its unusual relevancy (and a great central turn). There was no reason to believe A United Kingdom wouldn’t bristle even more. However the opposite is true. The politeness of Asante’s follow-up is it’s undoing. The meek vision of liberal politics projected by the media is the vision we’re afforded here. Asante’s film wants to get its hands dirty… but only a little bit, please. It doesn’t want to displease anyone particularly in the process. It renders it pretty, rigorously inoffensive… and mute.
It’s 1947. The great David Oyelowo stars as Prince Seretse Karma of what was then known as Bechuanaland (now Botswana). He is studying law in England when he meets mild-mannered office clerk Ruth Williams (the great Rosamund Pike). A romance blossoms between them, much to the displeasure of Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst; out of his depth). However, when Ruth accepts Seretse’s proposal of marriage, their love story quickly escalates into an international incident. In swoops UK ambassador to Bechuanaland, Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), to urge Ruth to reconsider and patronisingly explain the meaning of apartheid. Ruth and Sereste marry anyway. Moving to Seretse’s homeland, Ruth comes to understand the pressures they are under even further.
Before Asante’s film delves earnestly into the politics, we are treated to what feels like a great lost 1940’s British romance picture. Pike channels Celia Johnson in David Lean’s Brief Encounter for Ruth to the point where you’re half wondering when she’ll start begging Oyelowo “don’t go to the war, darling”. Oyelowo is as charismatic as ever. Their glossy romance is a jolly, soft focused affair. It’s the kind of indulgent, knees-up, feel-good, sentimental filmmaking that draws in UK punters across the age-ranges.
But applying such a syrupy approach to the messy and hateful politics that Seretse and Ruth find themselves vying with neuters the drama and obfuscates the point of much that follows. Davenport’s Alistair Canning acts as masthead for the objections to their interracial love, but he is presented wholly without nuance. If he had a moustache, he’d be twirling it. His two-dimensional smarminess betrays the more troubling aspects of society that Asante’s film would’ve benefited from exploring; who are the people who supported apartheid? What is it that ingrains racism and makes it the easier path for so many? The complexities of the question are brushed aside in favour of a foppish and wearying pantomime villain.
And while threats of exile are hurled back and forth and as Seretse and Ruth face the possibility that their life together will be divided, nothing really sticks with any weight. This feels like an intentional move to soften a thorny subject in order to appeal broadly to casual cinema-goers, but the result is a curious one. A United Kingdom feels like a main course that’s been disguised as mere confectionery; the resulting confused intent has removed almost all of the flavours. The film becomes quaint and nothing but. If David Jason turned up as a lovable chuckling fuddy-duddy in the second hour, you wouldn’t bat an eye.
Is there anything particularly wrong with such muddled, unambitious, safe filmmaking? Not especially. Light entertainment has always had its place. But taking such a polite middle-class sensibility and applying it here feels like an injustice to the people and plight depicted. The drama is dampened in a soapy true life adaptation that lacks any sense of fire or urgency. Pike feels caged (Gone Girl showed us what she’s capable of, but little of that is allowed voice here) and though Oyelowo is impassioned he’s not enough alone to steer this one back on track.
There’s a searing, relevant, thoughtful, righteous and angry picture hidden somewhere in the DNA of A United Kingdom, but Asante’s too busy pointing the camera off to the left to capture a pretty African sunset. A major disappointment.