A United Kingdom: Love In The Time Of The British Empire

This review will contain spoilers.

by Shane Thomas 

Once the year in film began with #OscarsSoWhite[1], was it coincidence that 2016 is closing – and 2017 beginning – with a raft of movies featuring people of colour? We have Hidden Figures, Lion, Fences, and the magnificent Moonlight to come. We recently had the release of Queen of Katwe, and last Friday saw A United Kingdom, Amma Asante’s follow-up to Belle, appear in cinemas.

maxresdefault-2The story focuses around the true-life romance between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams (played by David Oyelewo and Rosamund Pike). Seretse, who is studying in London in 1947, meets and falls in love with Ruth while in England. Normally this would set the table for a garden variety rom-com. But there’s no chance of any “com”, due to the complications the relationship brings. Seretse is the dauphin to the throne of Bechuanaland (a place under British control, before it was known as Botswana), and he is black, while Ruth is white.

The early stages of their relationship have a Noel Coward-esque tone to it. The courtship bears loose similarity to Brief Encounter, with the dialogue feeling very much of that era. Seretse and Ruth have a naivety redolent of Romeo and Juliet. Completely besotted with one another, without realising their love will inevitably run into a series of roadblocks.

Now husband and wife, they return to Bechuanaland, largely to the disgust of his uncle (who is the protectorate’s current ruler), as well as much of the population. This animus is shared by the British government, not just for reasons of racism, but also because the marriage has caused problems for their own political operations.

South Africa are on Bechuanaland’s doorstep, and – about to enshrine apartheid into law – have taken the dimmest view possible of Seretse and Ruth. They expect Britain to intervene, as the two nations have an ongoing trade partnership. South Africa have been selling uranium to Britain on the cheap for the purpose of its atomic weapons program.

At times, it feels like two separate films occurring at once, and Asante’s job is to reconcile them. Much like in Belle, A United Kingdom is one story running parallel to, and then affected by, the other. The push and pull inherent in relationships being push and pulled further by respective imperialist agendas.

The best sections of the film are the political manoeuvrings, showing that Seretse and Ruth are pawns in a bigger geopolitical game. Asante once described Belle as a story of “conditioning vs. instinct”. This is a tale of obligation vs. personal happiness.

The film as a whole doesn’t come off as strong as its constituent parts, which I think is down to a screenplay largely absent of subtext; mainly because when you have the characters repeatedly state their intentions, thoughts, and anxieties, it’s no longer subtext. It’s just text.

Key events progress with undue haste. The early sections of the romance storyline, and Ruth’s assimilation in Bechuanaland, don’t feel fully earned. We see the what, but not always the why. In Asante’s defence, I suspect – for reasons of running length – she had to cut a number of scenes that would have helped flesh out these subplots.

a-united-kingdom-pic4What I enjoyed most, however, was how well Asante rendered the societal texture of both nations. Seretse and Ruth meet via a social organised by Christian missionaries. These are commonly attended by African students, showing the continent’s long history of being inculcated into Christianity by white Europeans.

In addition, Ruth gets a scintilla of what it feels like to be othered and made automatically unwelcome in a new home[2]. There’s also an underlying patina of sexism that she has to face from British government officials, who reflexively view her opinions as fatuous.

Bechuanaland is depicted as picturesque, but not inherently idyllic. Like Britain, it’s a very patriarchal place. We seldom hear black women speak, or play much of a role in the decision making process of their society. There’s also a nice touch from Asante, when she displayed how – as Jendella Benson covered on this site – motherhood has an ability to bring together women from differing backgrounds.

But my favourite sidebar was the austere repression carried out by the British establishment. Their only concern is to maintain imperial power and influence; a power they feel entitled to, caring little for who gets trampled on in the process. An air of supercilious superiority underpins their every move, acting like the world’s draconian headmaster. Instead of overt white supremacist rhetoric, they use coded terms, euphemisms, sophistry, and insidious cunning; always a key weapon of the oppressor.

Oyelewo has said he feels the reason this story isn’t more commonly known is because it has a black protagonist, but he shows again that he’s one of the most reliable actors you could find to play a black protagonist (I’m increasingly embarrassed that I once thought he wasn’t leading man material).

As he showed in Selma, he is especially adept at delivering powerful monologues. One in particular contains an energy that led me to ruminate on how much was inspired by his lived experience[3]. A quick digression: I don’t know if Oyelewo has ever played Hamlet, but if he hasn’t, he needs to. He would be an ideal fit for Shakespeare’s most iconic creation.

However, I felt Rosamund Pike was a less ideal fit for Ruth. She’s a skilled enough actor to make the character watchable, but Ruth’s unaffected guilelessness doesn’t play to Pike’s natural strengths. It was like watching the footballer Lady Andrade play as a striker; you know she can do a job there, but it’s not how you get the best out of her. In Pike’s defence, one wonders if she was especially keen to take this role as it gave her a chance to play against type.

As evidenced by her next film, Asante seems to want to tell love stories being put under strain by political agendas, and another key theme is the exploration of interracial relationships. While they can fail due to fetishisation, or thinking that you’ve traded up, A United Kingdom led me to ponder the ones that dissipated due to society’s external pressures: the suspicion; the aspersions; and the ostracism.

These are deliberate creative choices from Asante. She is on record as saying she wants to tell tales about events past to show how they reflect issues present, and I remain full of admiration that she’s not a filmmaker who ever intends to produce work that’s nugatory. A United Kingdom isn’t among the best films I’ve seen this year, but neither is it easily forgettable.

[1] – Your scheduled reminder that the credit for that hashtag goes to April Reign.

[2] – This is basically the, “You can’t sit with us” scene.

[3] – In real life, Oyelewo is married to a white woman, who also appears in the film.

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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015

Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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