Given the stark sociopolitical discord that has been revealed in recent months, it’s impossible not to find yourself tangentially preoccupied by the civil discontent that has consumed our nation when considering the title of Amma Asante’s latest drama. Thankfully, A United Kingdom is not a hastily contrived plea for public unity aimed at a Britain that has been broken by Brexit – although given her creative trajectory, it’s surely a topic that will be ripe for Asante to reflect upon in the future. But there does remain, in spite of its period setting, a timely discomfort to this true-life tale of our problematic post-war past.
The year is 1947, and life in London has effectively returned to normal following the Allie’s victory over Nazi Germany. For Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), however, the battle for freedom has only just begun. Their attraction for each other is clear from the moment they meet – he’s handsome and scholarly, she’s sweet and strong-minded – yet in the eyes of many, theirs is a union that cannot be accepted: as Ruth observes, her dad will hate Seretse, “he’s smarter than him, and he’s black” she quips.
Despite being faced with such prejudices, the bond between Seretse and Ruth grows rapidly, and soon their romance has blossomed into marriage. On the horizon, however, a diplomatic crisis brews: Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene) is insistent that his nephew return to his birthplace of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and assume his duties as King of their family’s tribe. And once there it is clear that to both Khama’s people and the South African PM D. F. Malan, a vocal advocator of apartheid, this interracial partnership is not considered something to be welcomed, forcing the pair to fight for their right to be together while around them the powers that be – led by a British Government desperate to secure the continued support of the commonwealth – conspire to pull them apart.As with her previous picture Belle, Asante probes the painful history of British race relations in a way that is undeniably considerate, though ultimately complacent. There are hints of Richard Attenborough’s impassioned attitude towards the form in her earnestly unflinching approach; the way she contrasts the sweeping, saturated warmth of Africa with the frosty smog of the London streets. But her skills as a filmmaker still lack a self-assured elegance.
Oyelowo and Pike are both strong, sharing a tender chemistry that’s intimate and inviting, fuelled by love and levity. But problems lie in the plot’s inability to connect with them on a personal level – Guy Hibbert’s script treating them more like components than characters, hurriedly glossing over their courtship in preference to extended sections later on of them feeling the full force of Jack Davenport and Tom Felton’s snivelling, sherry-swilling bureaucrats.
Quickly and disappointingly, A United Kingdom assumes the role of an obvious Oscar hopeful. Seretse and Ruth’s relationship is one charged with significant social and political concerns that continue to endure in these contemporary times; the innately xenophobic disposition expressed by a substantial proportion of the public feeling particularly pertinent. These issues though are more often than not addressed here with a simplistic, self-approving interest that’ll certainly please the crowd, but which plays too much to the matinee audience to leave a lasting impact.