Friday 22 June 2018

Movie Review: A United Kingdom (2016)

A biographical romance and historical drama based on a true story, A United Kingdom couples a story of deep love with colonial geopolitical intrigue.

It's 1947, and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is studying law in London, as part of his preparation to take over as King of Bechuanaland, the tiny landlocked British protectorate bordering South Africa. Bechuanaland is being ruled by Seretse's uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) as Regent until Seretse comes of age. At a dance event Seretse meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a humble office assistant. After a whirlwind courtship they fall deeply in love and decide to get married.

He is black, she is white, and this represents a big problem for the South African government, which is embarking on the abhorrent policy of apartheid. Britain needs natural resources from South Africa, and is therefore pressured to scupper the marriage. Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the British government representative in Southern Africa, delivers the message to Seretse and Ruth that they are not to wed. But the young lovers are as stubborn as they are in love, and indeed do head off to Bechuanaland as a married couple, setting off a diplomatic crisis that would last for years.

Directed by Amma Asante and written by Guy Hibbert, A United Kingdom is an inspirational story of nation building. While the film is almost too reverential towards the central couple, who are portrayed as essentially without any faults, Asante succeeds in constructing a remarkably gripping tale of love and idealism holding firm against dirty games of global economic convenience.

The film clocks in at 10 minutes under two hours, and Asante packs an exceptional amount of content into the efficient running time. With uniformly brisk pacing, A United Kingdom gallops through the romance, introduces the ominous diplomatic forces lining up against the mixed marriage, follows the couple through their difficult early days in Africa, and delves into the power struggle between Seretse and his uncle. And that's just the first half.

Still to come is a dramatic escalation of British muscle flexing, a heartbreaking separation, a broken  promise that exposes that futility of ever trusting politicians, and invigorating machinations involving natural resource exploration and misrepresentations of government inquiry findings. The film never stands still, and if anything can be accused of all too rarely pausing for reflection. A clever use of contrasting colours maintains the energy level: the African scenes burst with yellows and oranges; the London scenes are more staid and grey.

David Oyelowo owns the film with a domineering performance, whether quietly expressing his resolve or emotionally rallying his countrymen. Rosamund Pike gets relatively fewer scenes to shine, holding steady as the stoically resilient woman and supportive wife.

A United Kingdom deserves plenty of credit for allowing the romance to underpin the story rather than dominate the narrative, and for not shying away from often underrepresented issues of disreputable international diplomacy as practiced by fading colonial powers. A good love is hard to find, but better still is devotion to the land and an unwavering commitment to justice.

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