Amma Asante tells a very interesting and little known story, but seems unsure of exactly how to tell it.
Following on from the success of Belle two years ago, director Amma Asante returns to the big screen with another historical drama exploring the relationship between different races in colonial Britain. A United Kingdom tells the little known story of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a secretary from London, who falls in love with and marries Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the king of a prominent tribe in Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana). Their marriage is thwart with difficulties, not only from Seretse’s people, who refuse to accept a white woman as queen, but also from the British government, who are put under pressure by South Africa (having recently introduced apartheid) to end the marriage.
Oyelowo in particular stands out as the king of a people who refuse to accept his choice of spouse. The inner conflict Oyelowo shows in his portrayal as Seretse is incredible, as the king toils between his dedicated love for his wife, and his duty as King. Indeed, this is what gives the film its emotional heft, as Seretse is not only standing up to the people he loves, but also the dying British Empire, whose grasp on her colonies are gradually slipping with each day.
Pike is also good in her role as Seretse’s wife, but she is given very little to do besides sitting around and talking to other women, and discussing various trivial matters with her husband; she is never really given a chance to shine in her own right. The film does, occasionally, attempt to portray her as a feminist, such as when she briefly attempts to stand up to a colonial officer. However, these moments are rare and short-lived, with her husband often being the one who is forced to defend her, whilst she is seldom given the chance to stand up for herself. Admittedly, this may be due to the time in which it is set, with 1950s Africa not being the most liberal of places. However, for a film that so successfully manages to break down the barrier of race, it’s a shame it does not also attempt to transcend gender stereotypes in the same way.
Indeed, Asante seems to direct a very interesting and original story in a very safe and reserved way, presenting the film as a love story against a political backdrop, which is slightly problematic in that the politics is much more interesting part. The film’s first act, where we see the two protagonists fall in love, is very stereotypical and cheesy, with Asante seemingly trying to rush through this act in order to get to the part of the story she is more interested in. It is not until the film progresses in Bechuanaland, and the political context is established, that the film really starts to get interesting. However, even then Asante struggles to find a good balance between the romance and the political struggle, with the mix of the two being somewhat jarring.
With this said, A United Kingdom is definitely a film of two halves; one that works extremely well, and one which is somewhat stereotypical and a little bit boring. Therefore, whilst the film is certainly worth a watch, if you want to learn about a king of a small tribe who rebelled against British colonialism, or if you’re just after a simple romantic drama, you’d probably be better off waiting for the DVD!
A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, is distributed in the UK by Pathé. Certificate 12A.