Director Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom has awards season written all over it: an important true story, stellar cast and deep emotional connection, writes Natalie Stendall.
It’s almost a pity Asante follows this formula so closely, leaving her third and most accomplished feature lacking an extraordinary personality of its own.
A United Kingdom explores international relations and South Africa’s former racial segregation policy, apartheid, but it begins with a simple romance. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) in post-war London.
He’s the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland and their imminent inter-racial marriage excites concern within the British government and Bechuanaland’s neighbouring South Africa.
Asante speeds through the film’s early romantic scenes leaving them bland and predictable, while Pike’s ‘deer in the headlights’ expressions do nothing to help us understand the lovers’ bond.
It’s only when the couple arrive in Bechuanaland as man and wife, wondering if they’ve seriously ‘misjudged’ the situation, that the drama heats up. Pike and Oyelowo flex their acting muscle as the marriage is put under increasing strain by desperate governments using the couple as a diplomatic pawn.
The screenplay from Guy Hibbert (Eye In The Sky) delivers broad ideas about political independence, democracy and tolerance with ease: no mean feat given the story’s knotty international politics.
As a protectorate, Bechuanaland remained under the sovereignty of Britain, whose political representatives are played with an uncomfortably large dose of pantomime villain by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton. Asante’s positioning of the romance at the centre of the story allows us to feel the impact of their reprehensible diplomacy on a deeply personal level but the trace of a more interesting political drama occurring just off camera is the film’s undoing. It’s easy to feel Asante is selling the bigger story short.
A United Kingdom is a step in the right direction following Belle, the romantic costume drama about a mixed-race woman raised in an aristocratic family and on which Asante cut her teeth.
Asante gives us a more genuine love story here and a tighter bond between the political and romantic threads, but it isn’t quite enough.
Despite the undeniable power of the true story at its heart, A United Kingdom remains a soft political drama that’s crying out for more complexity, detail and grit.
A United Kingdom is in cinemas nationwide from November 25.