A United Kingdom (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike,
Director: Amma Asante
Screenplay: Guy Hibbert (based on the book, "Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and his Nation", by Susan Williams)
Review published March 13, 2017
Set starting in a post-WWII London, we witness the romance between Ruth Williams (Pike, Return to Sender), a white woman working locally as a clerk, and Seretse Khama (Oyelowo, Queen of Katwe), a black Oxford law student from Africa that she later finds is actually the heir to the kingdom of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland. Upon his need to return, the two lovers decide to wed, despite racial and cultural differences, only to find political forces on both sides of the issue wish them to break up to protect their own respective interests, especially in how it could shake up the stability of neighboring South Africa, which brings riches in minerals to Great Britain, undergoing the racial separation of apartheid.
Directed by Amma Asante (Belle) and adapted by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) from Susan Williams historical book, "Colour Bar", this is a polished and semi-fictionalized dramatization of real-life events, touching all of the bases necessary in order to make for the kind of film that most audiences should find pleasing, even if it doesn't color outside of the very defined lines at any time. Because the era covered spans a great deal of time, and gets into a good deal of African and British politics, the events and parameters of the conflicts are as streamlined as can be in order to keep the story feeling complete. That means the romance is a but hurried, even if the two main stars are certainly compatible on screen, and the chain of events are reduced to a few set-piece conversations. It's a nice, inoffensive film that could have used a bit more edge, or, at the very least, something truly unconventional or surprising, in order to leave a lasting impact. Alas, this production is more trying to cast a wide net of viewers, and perhaps land awards consideration, so whatever edges it could have had are sanded down for ease of general audience consumption.
Though the sheer breadth of the scope of A United Kingdom virtually assures that there will not be the kind of depth to give us the full range of emotions for the film to connect fully either as a romance or as a piece of historical intrigue, it's thanks to the commanding performances by the two leads that the characters of Seretse and Ruth become a couple to root wholeheartedly for throughout. Oyelowo is every bit as solid as he is in every film to date, always infusing a good deal of life into his characters without overplaying his emotions, while also never selling them short in any capacity. You truly do feel that this is a man who is passionately conflicted by the love of his country, his people, and his wife, desperately clinging to each one of them with his life, to the point where he might actually live without any of them if he cannot live with them all. Rosamund Pike, who is often overlooked as an actress that can give solid nuance, despite an Oscar nomination to her credit, is very adept at showing inner emotions that bubble up to the surface through the traditional English reserve. Although the events might have transpired as a collection of scenes that seek to give a history lesson, the actors manage to keep things on the right side of humanizing the players.
Beautiful cinematography from Sam McCurdy (The Legend of Hercules, The Descent) is another asset, and while the budget is modest for this type of period film, it is still a film every bit as handsome as its main couple are on the screen. Despite a lush presentation, the film is caught perhaps a bit too much in trying to be too many things at once, such that we're denied the full effect of the romance of the Khamas, or the rise and maintenance of Seretse's power, or the historical intrigue of how Bechualand became Botswana. We do get just enough, especially since the actors sell the semblance of emotion, and that may be enough for most viewers to come away feeling that A United Kingdom delivers on all of the fronts they expect, but few will come away feeling swept away. It's the kind of pleasing movie that many will like, but not as many will find the kind of passion for it that Seretse and Ruth presumably had for each other.
©2017 Vince Leo