You are the only one: A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom (2016)

Despite its great performances and the relevance of the story it wants to tell, A United Kingdom is perhaps a bit too conventional to be memorable

A United Kingdom


Di­rect­ed by Amma As­ante. Screen­play by Guy Hi­b­bert, based on “Colour Bar” by Su­san Williams. Star­ring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Fel­ton, Ter­ry Pheto, Vusi Kunene, Abena Ayivor, Jack Dav­en­port, Jack Low­den, Don­ald Molosi, Char­lotte Hope, Nicholas Lyn­d­hurst, Anas­ta­sia Hille, Lau­ra Carmichael and Jes­si­ca Oyelowo.

A Unit­ed King­dom is only one of two films re­leased in 2016 deal­ing with in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage. But while Jeff Nichols’ Lov­ing de­serves praise for its hon­est and un­sen­ti­men­tal ap­proach to telling a true-life sto­ry – thus mov­ing us pre­cise­ly for un­der­stand­ing that it doesn’t need to dra­ma­tize events that are pow­er­ful by them­selves –, Amma As­ante makes a film (also based on a true sto­ry) that feels a lot more con­ven­tion­al and, con­se­quent­ly, less mem­o­rable. That, in fact, is a real pity con­sid­er­ing what she wants to tell, es­pe­cial­ly re­gard­ing the po­lit­i­cal agen­da of a few gov­ern­ments try­ing to pre­vent two peo­ple from mar­ry­ing (and lat­er sab­o­tage their union) since said mar­riage would rep­re­sent an af­front to their diplo­mat­ic in­ter­ests.

Writ­ten by Guy Hi­b­bert and based on Su­san Williams’ book Colour Bar (which I haven’t read), A Unit­ed King­dom be­gins in 1947 Lon­don, when law stu­dent Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of Bechua­na­land (now the Re­pub­lic of Botswana in Africa), meets and falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white Eng­lish woman. In­ter­ra­cial mar­riage is def­i­nite­ly not seen with good eyes, and when the two fi­nal­ly mar­ry (de­spite protests of their fam­i­lies), they re­al­ize they also need to fight the re­lent­less op­po­si­tion of the British gov­ern­ment, which is only con­cerned about main­tain­ing their diplo­mat­ic re­la­tions with South Africa (un­der apartheid dom­i­na­tion) and pro­tect­ing the sta­bil­i­ty of their pro­tec­torate in South­ern Africa.

Re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing an­oth­er film that also dealt with racial is­sues in a po­lit­i­cal con­text (the gen­uine­ly mov­ing Belle), As­ante knows how to tack­le cer­tain po­lit­i­cal mat­ters, like the abuse of British im­pe­ri­al­ism and the cun­ning strat­e­gy used by British of­fi­cials to keep Seretse away from Ruth – in­clud­ing ban­ish­ing him from his own coun­try at a cer­tain point. Thus, the most in­ter­est­ing as­pect of A Unit­ed King­dom is the can­did way that it ap­proach­es the ex­ploita­tion of re­sources in African coun­tries by the British (in­clud­ing their au­tho­riza­tion of US drillings in Bechua­na­land for di­a­monds and min­er­als) and how these same peo­ple could come up with any dirty move to pre­vent two hu­man be­ings who loved each oth­er from be­ing to­geth­er.

Car­ry­ing the movie on their shoul­ders, Oyelowo (Sel­ma) and Pike (Gone Girl) are ex­cel­lent and have a great chem­istry to­geth­er, which com­pen­sates for the clichés in the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of some oth­er char­ac­ters – such as Ruth’s one-di­men­sion­al­ly racist fa­ther who “un­der­stands” her sis­ter want­i­ng to spend time with col­ored peo­ple be­cause “at least [she] wants to con­vert them.” Like­wise, the only two white women who try to get close to Ruth in Bechua­na­land look more like Cinderella’s step­sis­ters, while the film’s ini­tial at­tempt to hu­man­ize a fig­ure like Sir Al­is­tair Can­ning (Jack Dav­en­port) by show­ing us a pho­to of his wife in his of­fice just falls flat – and I won’t even go into his ar­ti­fi­cial be­hav­ior and lame stut­ter­ing in the end.

More clichéd, though, are lines such as “You are the only one I want to spend my life with,” which would fit bet­ter in a soap-opera. Be­sides, by try­ing hard to move us with big words, the film gives us two speech­es which are in­tend­ed to be key mo­ments but sim­ply fail to de­liv­er. In the first one, Seretse ad­dress­es his peo­ple in Eng­lish (don’t ask me why) and is fol­lowed by a si­lence bro­ken only by the sound of a fly, be­fore each per­son in the au­di­ence starts to raise their hands, one by one, in de­fense of their prince (hell, this is so old). The oth­er is a typ­i­cal­ly hope­ful speech in the end about the need for and im­por­tance of democ­ra­cy – which is only as clichéd as a freeze frame in the last shot fol­lowed by pho­tos of the real peo­ple por­trayed in the film.

But al­though Asante’s ap­proach to her ma­te­r­i­al is most­ly unin­spired, it can be ef­fec­tive too, like with the news­pa­pers head­lines that pop up on screen in the old-fash­ioned way or the con­trast be­tween Seretse’s pop­u­lar­i­ty as he gives a ma­jor speech in Lon­don (yes, this film is full of decla­ma­tions) and the British’s un­pop­u­lar­i­ty in Bechua­na­land, when no one shows up to hear what they have to say. At least, A Unit­ed King­dom com­pen­sates for its sober aes­thet­ics with the stun­ning land­scapes of Botswana and a lot of re­spect for the Bang­wa­to tribe. That will be enough to leave me think­ing for a while about mak­ing a trip there any time soon.

May 4, 2017


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