Asante delivers another winning slice of history. A United Kingdom’s magnificent romance derives power from the unlikeliness of its true story.
A romantic fairy tale with love overcoming cruelty, Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is all the more wonderful because it is, incredibly, a true story. It’s also, in my humble opinion, far more rewarding than its underwhelming Boxing Day stable mate La La Land (Dickie was far more enthusiastic about the latter).
With a screenplay by Eye in the Sky scribe Guy Hibbert, it once again sees Belle director Asante return to an overlooked chapter of the British Empire’s cruelty, though this time 200-odd years later, with that once-powerful relic in its very last gasps following the cataclysm of WWII.
Producer and star David Oyelowo, who was heinously overlooked by the Oscars for his turn as Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, plays Seretse Khama, prince of the African nation of Bechuanaland we now know as Botswana. Studying in London, just as his duty to the British protectorate calls him home, Seretse falls for Rosamund Pike’s clerk Ruth Williams, who is, initially, oblivious to his status.
When their whirlwind romance leads to a proposal, much to the horror of her prejudiced father, unswayed they decided to commit to one another in marriage. And that’s just the beginning of their troubles.
With the gold and oil-rich South Africa in the midst of enacting its horrific apartheid policies, Labour prime minister Clement Attlee and the haughty creatures of the civil service, spearheaded by a tremendously sneering Jack Davenport as composite figure Sir Alistair Canning, are unwilling to endanger relations with their cash cow by allowing an interracial marriage.
Truth be told, it’s not just Britain and South Africa who are miffed. Leaving behind the perma-wet streets of a dreary London for the radiant hues of a sun-soaked Bechuanaland, with excellent location work shot by Sam McCurdy, Seretse and Ruth soon face the ire of his uncle and father figure, Regent Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), and his sister Naledi (Terry Pheto), the latter in particular galled by a white woman lording it over them.
Torn between two worlds, they can’t seem to please anyone but each other, and it’s Oyelowo and Pike’s remarkably tender and convincingly intimate bond that carries the movie, even when political machinations contrive to separate them. While I’m not overly fond of Pike’s performance usually, it’s a credit to them both that they convey deep commitment, courage and indomitable spirit even when the lovers are forced to spend great swathes of the movie apart.
While racism is central to the plot, so too is sexism, with Ruth’s clever playing of the ‘gender card’ at a pivotal moment in Britain’s grotesque machinations quite magnificent.
There’s also a small but important and wonderfully played role for Scottish actor Jack Lowden (’71) as towering Labour figure Tony Benn, a player in behind-the-scenes attempts to sway a tone deaf Attlee, casting a resurgent Churchill (unseen) thrust into the unlikely role of socially progressive agitant.
A United Kingdom’s contemporary echoes with rising racism, misogyny and deteriorating international relations lend a distinctly modern feel to the movie even as it lovingly recreates the past. My pick of the Boxing Day crop, Asante solidifies her ability to tell a politically charged story with a rousing, populist sensibility, sure to be further expanded in her upcoming feature Where Hands Touch, a love story between a Hitler Youth boy and a bi-racial girl set in the cauldron of 1944 Berlin.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords