British director Amma Asante’s film is based on the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of Bechuana Land (Botswana) who falls in love with, and marries, Englishwoman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Their relationship causes a major stir both in England and Africa, who disapprove of this interracial marriage, leading to enormous political ramifications. Seretse and Ruth struggle to remain together as everyone around seems to be against them and they fight for political justice and equality.
A United Kingdom starts off disappointingly due to its unnatural, stilted dialogue, uneven editing and uncertain, over dramatic acting. The film’s first act feels far too much like a stage play or pantomime and the scenes where the two protagonists fall in love is sadly filled with dialogue that doesn’t ring true at all and ultimately, it is a struggle to genuinely believe in their relationship. We also have the obligatory racist attack in the street, again with obvious, clichéd insults and uneven editing, with fade transitions being noticeably misused and Patrick Doyle’s score is also obvious and over sentimental.
A most noticeable example of the aforementioned over dramatic acting unfortunately comes from Nicholas Lyndhurst, who plays Ruth’s father and had no business being in this film. As the obligatory disapproving father, he was uncomfortably hammy, delivering the painful line “I can’t see you any more! Not if you choose him!” with such ham and melodrama that it caused me to give the biggest eye-roll and sigh that I haven’t experienced since Suicide Squad! Sorry Nicholas, it seems as though you’ll forever be Rodney Trotter . . !
However from then on, the film improves as the narrative moves over to Bechuana Land and the plot gains momentum. We begin to see the overwhelming obstacles that Seretse and Ruth have to face and we are left appalled by the actions of the British government as promises are broken and we will our protagonists onwards. The dialogue still isn’t perfect and interest does wane at certain points but the film seems to regain a sense of confidence and credibility as we delve into the “meat” of the story.
The cast give it all they’ve got and there are some pretty decent performances all round. David Oyelowo gives a strong, thoughtful turn as Seretse Khama, getting to deliver a great Selma-like speech and confidently showing the character’s intelligence and determination as well as his uncertainty and worry. Rosamund Pike is a good sport, though she is given relatively little to do besides looking wide-eyed and nervous, though she is a formidable presence in scenes where she stands up for herself and fights for her relationship. Oyelewo and Pike’s chemistry isn’t perfect, but they both imbue their characters with enough heart and passion to allow the audience to constantly root for them. Jack Lowden gives a brief, but incredibly dignified, performance as Tony Benn and Draco Malfoy himself Tom Felton, while initially seeming uncomfortable and out of place, is actually rather good as the slimy commissioner Rufus Lancaster.
It is however a bit of a mystery as to why the character of Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the main “antagonist”, had to be invented for the film and ultimately, he is the typical force of oppression that we have come to expect from films like this: the typical arrogant, smarmy, condescending English toff, rather fond of a glass of sherry at six o’clock as Big Ben chimes in the background. Splendid. And on that note, the British government, with a few noticeable exceptions, all seem to be the obvious antagonistic snobs who just seem to be there to oppress. Saying that though, that’s most definitely what they were actually like!
The story does eventually hit its stride and the cinematography and production design is very good, with images of Bechuana Land/Botswana beautifully shot. There is a great admiration for the central story from the filmmakers and their efforts to bring this story to a wider audience is genuinely commendable.
Ultimately though, this is your basic historical biopic tale, with the inescapable closing credit images of the real Seretse and Ruth and the you-know-it’s-coming “what happened next” onscreen text. The film even opens with the line “based on a true story”, which is clearly meant for a trailer and not for the beginning of a film. Maybe if it was worded differently, perhaps “the following is based on real events”, it might have worked but as it stands, it was a glaring opening error.
It’s a shame because I know that Amma Asante is a lovely person, having heard her a few times on Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review show, but this film is pretty standard and delivered with a certain lack of flare and originality. I do plan to watch Belle sometime though . . .
An important story, competently crafted and performed, albeit with a disappointing first act and muddled writing. A valiant effort, but nothing to write home about.