Friday, March 24, 2017

A United Kingdom

A UNITED KINGDOM (Amma Asante, 2016)

In 1947 London Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is studying in preparation for when it is his time to become king of his home nation Bechuanaland, now known as Botswana. He meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) at a social occasion in A UNITED KINGDOM, and rather unexpectedly the royal African man and white English woman fall in love. An interracial relationship is complicated enough in their time and place. Their decision to get married is also of considerable controversy back in southern Africa where he is to rule. Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi (Visu Kunene) has been leading until his nephew is ready to accept his role as heir to the throne, but he finds the marriage unacceptable, as do other members in the family and tribe.

Seretse finds persuading his own people to be less troublesome than getting the support of outsiders. The British government takes a keen interest in Seretse and Ruth’s relationship because of the economic stakes it has in the region and the continent. In a cruel twist in this fact-based story, the politicians call him to London and then ban him from returning while his pregnant wife is back home. The couple makes the difficult but principled decision to fight for their right to be together even if it means being separated by borders for an unknown amount of time.

A UNITED KINGDOM studies the personal within the political while focusing on the strength, resilience, and romance shared by a wronged man and woman. Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert flesh out the injustice with the broader picture in which the Khamas lived. Their marriage did not merely have local implications. Bechuanaland was under the protection of the United Kingdom. The British government wished to appease Bechuanaland’s neighbor South Africa, which was in the process of instituting apartheid. In their view, mistreating one couple for the sake of political favor and prospective economic gain seems justifiable despite the moral implications.

As with her previous film BELLE, Asante dives into history to select a fascinating but lesser known story of a person of color. Recently the actress Thandie Newton talked about the difficulty for black actors to find work in the U.K. because of the number of period pieces that tend not to have roles for ethnic minorities. A UNITED KINGDOM and Asante’s prior feature push back against the theoretical argument that there aren’t good tales to tell. If anything, something like this benefits from the unfamiliarity of its protagonists and the circumstances they confronted.

That relative novelty helps offset some of the earnestness that marks A UNITED KINGDOM. The film’s sincerity is not a fault, but it can play for stretches like a well-meaning lesson about a past society’s unfairness. The performers give it a big boost. Oyelowo brings dignity and a clear-eyed perspective to his part, yet he doesn’t shy away from letting Seretse simmer with anger at the powers that be that would undermine his authority and entitlements. He commands attention with grace rather than force. Pike demonstrates Ruth’s sensitivity to the situation in which she has chosen. Here’s a woman who is treated with suspicion for rightfully following her heart. She fights as she can regarding international matters, yet on a local level she respects the difference of opinion in a way that proves her deserving of the trust she needs to gain. Although A UNITED KINGDOM follows a template for its story of overcoming historical offenses, Oyelowo and Pike succeed at making these people feel human even as they conduct themselves with incredible patience.

Grade: B-

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