Through the smoky haze of the London bar, their eyes met, but nothing was spoken. This glance, exchanged early on in Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, sets the tone for this film as a classical—if not, conventional—biographical tale of forbidden love in 1947. Seretse Khama’s (David Oyelowo) gaze looks beyond the clouds of smoke to see Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) sipping a drink. Initially, the two abstain from saying anything to one another, but soon, they find themselves dancing in unison, without a care. People glance over, dumbfounded, wondering why a white woman is dancing with a black man—the dancers fail to notice this discretion, and the jazz music continually blares on.
As is abundantly clear from the onset, the impending marriage between Ruth and Seretse is denounced by nearly everyone who hears of it. Adding to the confusion, Seretse, an African prince, is informed that he must return to his home country of Bechuanaland (now, Botswana) to rule over his people. Ruth agrees to marry him, leaving London behind for the arid lands of Southern Africa. The dim, colorless streets of London are juxtaposed magnificently with the open vibrancy of Africa. The grayscale streets of an English city are quickly replaced with the oranges and yellows of the sun-drenched lands and vistas of Bechuanaland. Yet, even this change in landscape cannot help the couple escape judgment and chastisement, as Seretse’s family, too, becomes skeptical of such a marriage—after all, how could a white woman rule over an African nation? Seretse’s nation becomes fractured, and soon after, the English government begins to get involved, and this compounding of events leaves the characters seemingly hopeless in the face of ingrained racism.
Ultimately, while there is enjoyment to be found in the film the brazen conventionality of the film began to wear down. The English government’s sinister ambitions that begin to take root in the second half of the film, feel inorganic, even if this film is based on a true story. British officials calling for the couple’s divorce or exile, furthermore, were soullessly inhuman. To make matters worse, a subplot is later introduced, as Seretse discovers a secret British agenda to exploit Bechuanaland for its resources. This, like other aspects of this film, felt wholly manufactured, which is upsetting given that these events actually happened.
The film’s conventionality, however, could not stop Oyelowo from giving another rousing, impassioned performance. His performances are often incredibly powerful, a result of the emotion he reveals in his eyes. In nearly every frame, Oyelowo seems to be holding back a certain frustration and pain that can only be observed in this eyes. In addition, his ability to oscillate between tender husband and powerful leader is astonishing, for he delivers quite a few stirring speeches in this film that rival his work portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma (2014). Pike, likewise, gives a powerful performance as well, expressing complex emotions in looks and stares.
The disappointment in A United Kingdom comes from its inability to transcend the confines of a biographical, crowd-pleasing film. Thematically, this film addresses the abhorrent nature of the systemic racism of apartheid and the avarice of imperial nations that colonized Africa. While important, these themes are not necessarily novel. Loving (2016) tells the story of a couple unable to marry in the United States due to by an archaic law forbidding interracial marriage. Both Loving and A United Kingdom are period pieces dealing with similar themes, yet Loving wisely directs its attention away from the procedural aspects of the story and focuses on the quiet domesticity and contentedness of the familial unit. The characters in Loving seem substantially more fleshed-out than the characters in A United Kingdom. The latter was too bogged down in plot to focus enough time on its genuinely interesting characters.
Even with all its missteps and flaws, there is much to enjoy. Late in the film, Seretse continuously informs his people that he wishes to stop English involvement in Bechuanaland, “dismantling a tradition.” While the film itself may not succeed in dismantling a tradition of conventional biopics, it works fairly well within the limiting confines of the genre.
Featured Image By BBC Films