A UNITED KINGDOM
Director: Amma Asante
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Vusi Kunene, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Nicholas Lyndhurst
MPAA Rating: (for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality)
Running Time: 1:51
Release Date: 2/10/17 (limited); 2/17/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 16, 2017
The confounding history and politics of European colonialism in Africa receive a simplified, feel-good makeover in A United Kingdom, the story of how the love between a black, African successor to national rule and a white, working-class Brit helps to defeat imperialist rule over an African nation. That the film's primary concern is with the various political complications of this union is to its benefit. The screenplay by Guy Hibbert may condense those politics in order to create an easy-to-define sense of conflict, but Hibbert doesn't sacrifice the notion that this labyrinth of assorted local, regional, and international concerns is major problem unto itself.
The major issue, of course, is a climate of what Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir apparent to the local rule of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), repeatedly refers to as "racialist politics." They are on the rise at film's start in 1948, despite the recent end of a world war against such political ideology just a few years prior. Segregation based on race and/or ethnicity is a matter of fact in parts of Britain. The Prime Minister of Britain makes reference to the Jim Crow laws of the United States. In South Africa, which borders Bechuanaland, the ruling political class is discussing a complete separation of the races, and in the midst of Seretse's diplomatic fight to retain his birthright, the government of South Africa has given that policy a name: apartheid.
These details would be background material in an even simpler film—one that, perhaps, would see the love story as the answer to this political morass. Instead, those details are at the forefront of Hibbert and director Amma Asante's concerns. It's a political film that begins on a local level of racial prejudice and then expands its view as way to observe how such backwards beliefs can infest on a national and international level.
Seretse is in England, completing his study of law at the University of Oxford. His rationale is that, in order to defeat colonialism, one must understand its legal mechanisms. While at a local dance, he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a typist who is immediately drawn to Seretse when she sees him and overhears him discussing his political philosophy.
Their courtship is short—a necessity of how much else the film has to cover—but sweet—a testament to the appeal of the two performers. She admires and has romantic feelings for him before he tells her that he must return to Bechuanaland to ascend to his rightful place as king (Hibbert takes careful note of how the title changes—between "king" and "chieftain"—depending on who is saying it and to whom it is being said). He wants to spend as much time with her as he can before he must leave, and when that time arrives, he proposes marriage to her. She accepts, despite the protests of her racist father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and the threat of social ostracization, and he persists, despite his uncle (Vusi Kunene), his guardian and the regent to his rule, forbidding the union.
These are the problems of local politics—of the personal and social prejudice against this marriage in England and in Bechuanaland, where Seretse's uncle says that the population will not accept a white woman as their queen. The even thornier level, though, comes with the introduction of representatives of the British government in both of Seretse and Ruth's homelands.
In England, there's Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), who represents the government's interests in the South African region. The most pressing concern—from an assortment of higher-up government officials whom Canning lists to the couple, as if they should be impressed—is in Britain's relationship with the government of South Africa (The specifics of this relationship are never defined, although the fact of a shaky political alliance is enough for the drama). In Bechuanaland, where Seretse and Ruth go in spite of the various objections, Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton) is in a prime position to exert the empire's will and authority, should it come to that. Considering the animosity Seretse's uncle has toward his nephew, such a situation seems to be inevitable.
The love story takes a backseat almost immediately, which is why it's so important that Oyelowo and Pike establish the bond between these characters so quickly and strongly in the first act. This is not a routine story of love triumphing in the face of adversity. The end goal is not that their relationship survives (The couple is separated for a lengthy period of time). It's that the country comes together against forces with their own agendas, which have little to nothing to do with the best interests of the population. It's a film about backroom discussions, broken promises (The film does not have a favorable look of either of the major political parties in Britain at the time, since both are working in favor of maintaining an imperialist status quo), and hostile power moves that are made under the guise of righteous diplomacy.
Even though the film reduces a lot of the political complications to the bare minimum, this is a far tougher story than its opening act suggests. A United Kingdom doesn't minimize the effect of these politics—on either side, considering the suspicion and backlash with which Ruth is met in Bechuanaland. As its scope expands, the film peels back layers of injustice while telling a compelling, if overly simplified and rose-tinted, story in the process.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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