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There is no denying that extreme right movements are rising in popularity. Lines have been drawn in the sand and global bipartisanship is the order of the day. Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom finds a voice in this time, reflecting the politics of today against our history — reminding and warning us of where we come from.
The film tells the story of the interracial marriage between Sir Seretse Khama (a charming David Oyelowo) and his English wife Ruth (Rosamund Pike). Their love was forbidden, both by the British and by Khama’s uncle. Khama was to become a king in what was then called Bechuanaland and his marriage to a British woman threatened the traditions of his lineage, as well as a South Africa that was initiating apartheid.
A United Kingdom tells a story of a love that survived the wrath of an empire.
The film is visually breathtaking (though it’s certainly not difficult to make Botswana look good). Every shot is meticulously composed and shrouded in a warm romantic glow. It’s near impossible not to fall in love with every frame. Amma Asante has complete control over what she wants, but though it works well for the visuals, it stunts the performances of her immensely talented cast.
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are powerhouses. Their faces are capable of journeying through the entire spectrum of human emotion in ten seconds — so it was obvious when they were being inhibited by Asante’s direction. There were too many scenes that would have benefitted from giving the cast flexibility. Both the leads’ best moments are when the camera holds on them and gives them time to do what they do best. Their worst moments are stilted deliveries followed by movement clearly included for the sake of composition.
A United Kingdom tells a story of a love that survived the wrath of an empire, but misses its chance to comment on racial politics
Though Asante is hard on her visuals, she fails to inject the same certainty into her politics.
A United Kingdom has the opportunity to delve into the complexities of racial politics. The most compelling scene in the film is when Khama’s mother and sister confront Ruth alone. They question why they should accept a white woman as their sovereign in the only political structure over which the Motswana have retained control. They have a point, and it provides a multitude of complexities the newlyweds will have to tackle. But we never see them do it. Ruth tries hard enough to fit in, and eventually all is well.
Asante pushes the narrative that love will conquer all, and it’s a dangerous one in today’s political climate. Love does not end systemic racism, it is political change that does that.
Only near the end do we see Khama’s true political cunning and it is too little too late. If we had seen his prowess earlier — perhaps in what was actually the multiple public meetings he had with his people before convincing them of his suitability to rule — the film may have packed the punch it needed to inspire change today. The lack thereof unfortunately places its impact somewhere with the likes of Invictus.
Verdict: A United Kingdom is visually commanding, and it hosts beautiful performances from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. The film is unfortunately too polite, and does not risk asking difficult questions about racial and intercultural politics.