The 60th London Film Festival is launched with a showing of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, a trite and worthy historical drama about Prince Seretse Khama’s exile from Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
The first third of the film is particularly insipid, effectively detailing the romance between Seretse (David Oyelowo), the heir to the Bechuanaland throne who is studying in England, and Ruth (Rosamund Pike), the white English girl whom he falls in love with. Their courtship is tedious and perfunctory; for a considerable portion of its time, A United Kingdom is a glowing example of the truth in the old ‘actions speak louder than words’ adage. We have to endure scene after scene of the two lovebirds telling each other how much they love one another, how society wants to stop their love affair, et cetera, et cetera. The operative problem being: we are never given any practical indication as to why these two people are so enamoured with each other. Their only moments of actual recognisable connection are hackneyed slow-dancing scenes. You would be forgiven for assuming that they married simply through their shared love of amateur dance. For a film in which the depth of their relationship is the driving narrative through-line, it is a critical failing that such a relationship feels predicated on nothing but the thinnest clichés.
“You would be forgiven for assuming that they married simply through their shared love of amateur dance”
A United Kingdom does, however, pick up once the action turns more political, following a ploy by the British government to strand Seretse on English soil, with Ruth and his rightful subjects desperately awaiting his return. There is an infectious sense of frustration at the injustice he faces, and although any political points are scored with a sledgehammer’s nuance, there is at least a refreshing honesty in casting the British Empire as deceitful, obstructive antagonists. Asante is unafraid to go after the immorality and exploitation that is inseparable from the Empire. Oyelowo grows into the role, and by the end of the film has fought, argued and emoted his way into the viewer’s affections. His public speeches don’t pack quite the punch they did in Selma, but his efforts in the smaller scenes are moving, transparent Oscar baiting notwithstanding.
In the end, this is perhaps what makes A United Kingdom so disappointing. It is a film with evident ambition for awards, and part of this ambition means broadening the appeal. The result, unfortunately, is a work almost completely devoid of originality. The film is an almost unbroken sequence of scenes which don’t quite ring true. Whether this is more down to poor acting (of which there is plenty, particularly the minor roles) or blunt and unimaginative scripting, is hard to say. The film’s anti-racist, pro-democratic message is clearly well-intentioned, but fails to find a voice with the requisite weight. The complexity and power of the true story from which it stems are sadly lost when reduced to broad, Oscar-hungry pastiche.
Image: Amma Asante