Movie Review: A United Kingdom

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Tells the true story of the marriage between Seretse Khama, prince and later king of Botswana, and his white English wife Ruth Williams.

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While studying in London in the 1940s, the prince of Botswana, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), meets London typist Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The two are initially attracted to one another and start dating, despite racist attacks and the opposition of Ruth’s parents. Faced with having to return home to Botswana, Seretse proposes to Ruth, and they are swiftly married. Their trouble are only just beginning, however. When Ruth accompanies Seretse to his home country, they are met with resistance from both the people of Botswana and the occupying Brits. With South Africa’s apartheid infesting other African nations, Seretse tries to rally his people around his wife and fight the racism that the British government is invested in maintaining. Local government official and full-time scenery chewer Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) hatches a plot to separate the Khamas just as Ruth is expecting their first child. With Ruth left behind in Botswana while Seretse is exiled in England, they must fight to defend their country and their marriage.

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A United Kingdom is a well-meaning period piece that just doesn’t have enough going for it to get it into the awards season that I’m sure it was pitching for. It’s definitely a story that is relevant and intriguing. The opening scenes set in London have so many interesting ideas that are glossed over, or important moments that we cut away from. Watching an African prince fall in love with a white English working girl in the 1940s is, in itself, a tale worth telling, but it only gets about 15-20 minutes of aborted screen time. Once they arrive in Botswana, the film starts to settle into an easier rhythm. It’s unfortunate that once Seretse and Ruth get to Botswana, the film is intent on separating them as quickly as possible – David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike have a lot of chemistry, and the film bubbles along on their relationship much better when they’re together. Once separated, Pike gets all the heavy lifting, remaining behind alone in Botswana to give birth and raise their baby alone. She gets a lot of the film’s more powerful dramatic moments, while Oyelowo handles the dry politics back in London.

This movie feels very much like a throwback to a different era of filmmaking. It’s too safe and unfocused to really be effective, even though it chronicles a very interesting story. The acting is uneven. Jack Davenport is chewing the scenery like it’s candy, delightfully, moustache-twirlingly evil – there’s a scene where he shows up to an event in full period military dress and he could have stepped right out of a Disney movie. He makes the film seem more fictional than real. On the bright side, he makes the audience laugh more than almost anyone else in the film. However, his performance (and that of Tom Felton, who is pretty consistently Draco Malfoy in every movie ever) is so out of step with the charming, heart-rending, and more naturalistic performances that Pike and Oyelowo give. They elevate the movie beyond its slow pacing, mediocre script, and lacklustre storytelling. It IS beautifully shot, though, particularly when filming the bright, natural beauty in Botswana, though Amma Asante gets plenty of leverage out of London fog and street lamps. It’s watchable and sweet and populist, but I can’t help but feel it was made in the wrong era.

A United Kingdom on IMDb

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