'A United Kingdom'
‘A United Kingdom’ is the type of movie designed to make audiences leave the theater pleased with themselves for confirming the basic values that they brought into the screening. It takes a fairly fascinating slice of history and reduces it to the simplest and friendliest possible melodrama.
The film will bring out a mild half-grin from viewers before promptly being relegated to a future of screening exclusively in front of disinterested high school students in history and social studies classes. The saddest part is that a variety of talented folks were responsible for this mediocrity and their talents would have been much more wisely used elsewhere.
Rosamund Pike stars as Ruth, a shopkeeper’s daughter who falls in love with a Botswana prince named Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) who was studying abroad in England. She had no clue about his royalty at first. They faced some upper-crust British racism during their courtship, but the real challenges came when they got married and returned to his home country. This wasn’t just an interracial marriage at a time when such things were taboo. Ruth was to become the white queen of a country with a strict racial divide in its class structure. That meant plenty of opposition from Seretse’s family and people. Worse, it caught the two of them in the midst of an international scandal. The postwar British colonial presence in Botswana faced steep opposition from a South African government that hardly approved of the coupling in the age of Apartheid. When Seretse was tricked into returning to England, he was promptly banished from his home country, separating the couple in the midst of their first pregnancy. Obviously, that’s a bad situation all around, but love conquers all, right?
An intriguing true life story is buried at the center of the movie, enough so that it’s easy to see why acclaimed director Amma Asante (‘Belle’, ‘A Way of Life’) was compelled to take on the project. The filmmaker takes full advantage of the lush period design and vast landscapes of her story, framing it as a sort of intimate epic. She also cast the lead roles perfectly. Both Oyelowo and Pike are the type of performers capable of finding naturalism in the most theatrical of roles and communicating a wealth of emotion through quiet and repressed faces. They share remarkable on-screen chemistry and strength in a film dependent on the performers projecting heaps of both qualities. In a quiet year with no competition and a massive marketing budget, they likely could have even scored some Oscar nominations – the kind that you look back on years later and struggle to remember what movie the nominations were even for.
Unfortunately, even with such good work by Asante, Oyelowo and Pike to give the picture some prestige, the whole movie is rather dull and flat. The script is depressingly pedestrian, reducing complex people and politics down to bite-sized morsels of feel-good drivel. The plot plays out to such predictable story beats that it has barely any suspense. Morality is reduced to simple good vs. evil without any human complexity. (Tom Felton plays a character with about as much subtlety and nuance as Draco Malfoy despite not being an evil wizard.) The lessons are doled out so thickly that they may as well have been written in CAPS LOCK. Most frustratingly, all of the most interesting and/or unsettling aspects of the story (like the diamond mine subplot) are washed over to ensure that the movie plays out with maximum niceness.
Feel-good historical fluff like this simplifies complicated political dynamics down to simple notions of good and evil that no one could possibly disagree with. In the process, it doesn’t make for particularly riveting cinema. In an era when racial politics are discussed so often and with such sensitive complexity, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity for ‘A United Kingdom’ to take so few risks. The fact that it’s so aggressively inoffensive is almost offensive in itself.