Much like her last one, Amma Asante’s newest feature is purposefully subversive. The director’s sophomore effort, 2013’s Belle, took the English period drama and swapped the generic pretty white debutante out for a young black woman, while A United Kingdom, Asante’s latest based-on-fact tale, is a historical romantic epic that keeps the standard porcelain beauty but makes the dashing leading man a black African.
The very title of the film is subversive, a reference to poor, troubled Bechuanaland, the home of David Oyelowo’s Seretse Khama, rather than misty old colonial-era Great Britain, where Seretse first meets Rosamund Pike’s Ruth Williams. Early scenes set in 1940s post-war London deliberately toy with conventions, as law student and secret royal Seretse begins a whirlwind romance with Ruth, a local clerk, with neither initially acknowledging their color at a time when interracial relations were a major taboo.
When the issue of race does come to the fore, Asante again plays around with what’s expected of race-based drama. Not only does the black Seretse face prejudice in white Britain for the color of his skin, but in the majority-black Bechuanaland protectorate – which Seretse returns to along with Ruth upon their getting married – the white Ruth is discriminated because of hers. Theirs is presented as a forbidden love where in no part of the world is their relationship free of judgement and hostility, all because of the respective abundance or lack of melanin in their bodies.
Alas, that’s where A United Kingdom‘s radical streak ends. As Seretse and Ruth settle at the film’s middle third into life together as King and Queen of Bechuanaland (which would later become the independent Botswana), A United Kingdom turns as polite and dusty as the most middling of these kinds of movies often can be. Asante’s story is a grand one, of true love and nations and kings, but the execution lacks the necessary cinematic sweep of a great historical epic (an abundance of obvious drone shots just looks like lazy filmmaking). More importantly, the film is bereft of much in the way of passion or surprise. A United Kingdom is a kind of Oscar bait that doesn’t seem to appeal all that much to Oscar anymore: an inspiring true story, plainly and inoffensively told. Without Oyelowo and Pike, it would be near lifeless.
The two principals can’t totally overcome the lack of scrutiny in Guy Hibbert’s script, their characters flattened out by an overly-reverential approach to the story, but Oyelowo and Pike nonetheless give lively, impassioned performances. Oyelowo proved in Selma that he can deliver a barnstorming cinematic speech, and A United Kingdom is positively stirring when it places Seretse in front of a rapt audience, Oyelowo’s voice cracking, his eyes wringing out tears as Seretse pleads with British and Batswana alike to understand his love for Ruth. Pike, meanwhile, is as warm here as her Oscar-nominated turn in 2014’s Gone Girl was icy. When it concerns itself with the central love story and the delightful chemistry of its leading pair, A United Kingdom is its most authentic self.
When the film swaps out the romance to focus on politics, as in an entire middle stretch wherein Seretse and Ruth are separated by the British government’s decision to banish Seretse from Bechuanaland, it doesn’t work nearly as well. Asante has one finger on today’s populist pulse, opportunistically portraying corporations and establishment politics as founded on corruption and deceit. The director reveals less about the politics of her movie’s period setting, Asante missing an opportunity to explore the politics of the then-dying British Empire.
Nuance full-stop is not her strong suit, she and Hibbert presenting anyone who opposes Seretse and Ruth’s relationship as villainous, and anyone in favor as wholly good (for one, Jack Lowden’s portrayal of legendary politician Tony Benn, who challenged the British government to allow Seretse to re-enter Bechuanaland, borders on parodically saintly).
We’re only ever offered a skin-deep understanding of the story’s characters and the wider society. Ruth’s parents sternly disapprove of their daughter marrying a black man in one scene, then later in another appear to have happily come to terms with it, without explanation. The British government, represented by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton’s snarling ambassadors, opposes African autonomy and the intermingling of white and black, but this is never explained in any depth. Seretse’s uncle and sister, who initially disapprove of white working-class Ruth before being suddenly won round by her enchanting Englishness, are similarly one-note.
It’s this shallowness, this apparent disinterest in complexity that leadens A United Kingdom, keeping it all too regimented and predictable. The romance works, but whatever else there is is a slog.
A United Kingdom is well-intentioned, with impassioned performances from Oyelowo and Pike, but it's executed as drily and inoffensively as so many middling Brit period dramas.