A UNITED KINGDOM (USA | UK | Czech Republic/12A/111mins)
Directed by Amma Asante. Starring Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Jessica Oyelowo, Tom Felton, Jack Davenport
THE PLOT:
In 1940s London, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) fall in love and plan to marry. The trouble is that this marriage between an English woman and an African man, heir to the throne of Bechuana Land, is not only scandalous due to the couple’s races and ethnicities, but threatens the political system both at home and in Africa.
THE VERDICT: ‘A United Kingdom’ is based on a true story, and brought to the screen by Amma Asante; ‘Grange Hil’l actress turned director, in her third feature length project as director after ‘A Way of Life’ in 2004 and ‘Belle’ in 2013.
Rosamund Pike leads the cast as the headstrong but graceful Ruth Williams, and she does the character justice as she struggles to find a place where she belongs when the fact of who she has fallen in love with leads to her being ostracised. David Oyelowo is charming and sweet as Seretse Khama, making the character graceful and strong, but softer and gentler than his headstrong wife. The two work well together, and the chemistry between them is clear on screen. The rest of the cast features Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael and Jessica Oyelowo.
Guy Hibbert’s screenplay addresses an important story in the struggle for equality between black and white people, in both the UK and Africa, but even though the love story at the centre of the film is strong, it is not long before ‘A United Kingdom’ gets caught up in politics; the squabbling between family members, the introduction of apartheid in South Africa and the hunt for precious minerals are all touched on in the film, which goes some way toward diminishing the facts at the heart of the tale. There is so much going on here that it is hard for the audience to know what to hang on to, and while the love story is ever present, it is not brought to the fore enough for the film to be hung upon it.
As director Amma Asante gets strong performances from Pike and Oyelowo, and their chemistry on screen is natural and warm, but it is in the minutiae that Asante struggles to keep the film moving, and make the issues as clear as they should be. As well as this, there are times when emotion borders on saccharine sweetness, so while the story is worthwhile, it gets somewhat cloying and overly sweet at times.
In all, ‘A United Kingdom’ could be a powerful story about love and equality, but it gets bogged down in exploring the political choices that led to governments getting involved in a romance. Pike and Oyelowo are strong, but both the actors and their subjects deserved a stronger script and direction that what they got.
RATING: 3/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    A United Kingdom: an interesting title in our post-Brexit times. However, Amma Asante’s follow-up to Belle tells another story of a very different time.

    London, 1947. Seretse (David Oyelowo) catches the eye of Ruth (Rosamund Pike) at a party. There’s an instant attraction between them, where the colour of each other’s skin is merely a fact rather than an obstacle. After their first date, he reveals that he’s actually Prince Seretse of Betuanaland in Africa – the country that would later become Botswana. In London finishing his education, he must soon return home to his father Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who is regent until his son takes his rightful place. However, the path to inter-racial love is not an easy one in this time. The impending marriage of Seretse and Ruth is frowned upon by nearly everyone, including British representative in South Africa Sir Alistair (Jack Davenport). ‘Have you no shame?’ he proclaims to Ruth, as she apparently threatens to destabilise the British Empire in Africa. There are bigger issues here than just two people falling in love and getting married. The political implications have to be considered too. When Seretse and Ruth arrive in Betuanaland, they’re met with a frosty reception. Can Seretse be everything he wants to be – a king, a leader, a husband and a father?

    A little-known true story, A United Kingdom shines a light on a less enlightened time. Viewed from a 2016 perspective, the term miscegenation is now out-dated but has a part to play in this particular story. It’s not the only one. Jeff Nichols’ new film Loving will explore similar territory when it opens in February – but viewed from an American perspective. The crux of A United Kingdom is that two people loving each other has more than just problems about tolerance and acceptance. The political implications stretch far and wide too, to the neighbouring state of South Africa, which practiced apartheid during the time of this story.

    Skillfully written by Guy Hibbert, the screenplay is careful enough not to paint anyone as a bad guy. The sneering, slightly contemptuous tone of Sir Alastair comes across as human at times. Even Tom Felton manages to shake off some of that Draco Malfoy attitude too. They’re just doing their job – even if their attitudes are somewhat unsympathetic. ‘We’ve misjudged this, haven’t we?’ says Ruth at one point. Perhaps, but love finds a way. There’s an inspirational element to this story which transcends anything remotely saccharine or manipulative. The performances by old reliables Oyelowo and Pike are pitched just right (though the love at first sight thing is a bit clumsy). Seretse gives an impassioned speech later on to his people which is stirring stuff and a rally call for acceptance rather than rejection. Their performances are so earnest and honest that you can believe their connection.

    Asante builds upon the themes of race, nationality and identity from Belle to make an even better film in A United Kingdom. It’s smart, touching, troubling and hopeful. There’s a message here which we should pay attention to even now. ****