Disputed romance, political discourse, rousing speeches, ostracized individuals just trying to gain acceptance... On paper, these elements promise great potential for an inspiring, powerful film. However, in the case of “A United Kingdom,” directed by Amma Asante, such dramatic structures are thrown together with what seems to be a formulaic and all too familiar recipe.
The movie is based on a true story about the romance between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the prince-turned-king of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an English typist. Set in the late 1940’s, the story follows Seretse and Ruth as they overcome stereotypical conflicts of social dramas. Jack Davenport plays Alistair Canning, the British representative to Southern Africa and a plot device who makes it his mission to prevent Seretse and Ruth from being together, supposedly to avoid chaos in Southern Africa.
One of the first apparent issues with the film is that it attempts to be both a political drama and a love story, without allowing either concept to be fully established. Seretse and Ruth’s budding romance is hastily developed, and within the first 10 minutes the two are already infatuated with each other. They go on a date, and then a montage shows that they go on many more, but the audience is not privy to the details of those interactions. By the time Seretse asks Ruth to marry him, the rushed romance has barely been established. This is particularly problematic as the rest of the film hinges on the strength of their relationship.
Seretse must then return to Bechuanaland to fill his role as king. The British government, fearing conflict between Bechuanaland and South Africa due to the South African apartheid policy, send Alistair Canning to attempt to prevent the marriage. Additionally, both Ruth and Seretse get backlash from their own families. With all of this opposition, it almost seems ridiculous when both Ruth and Seretse persist and continue to proclaim their love for each other, as their relationship on-screen has hardly been developed to that point of commitment.
The rest of the film follows a predictable formula. Ruth is initially met with disapproval and even scorn by the people of Bechuanaland, making it her goal to win their trust and respect. Seretse fights against the condescension of Canning while trying to gain permission to become the rightful king of his country. By giving its characters stereotypical obstacles, the movie fails to develop its main characters into unique and memorable individuals. The resulting product is a film that incorporates just the superficial elements of a great drama.
One bright spot in the movie is Oyelowo’s performance as Khama. His acting goes beyond the depth that the plot and dialogue offer. When Seretse delivers a passionate speech to his people, he cries, “I love my wife!”, a fact that might not be entirely obvious if not for Oyelowo’s delivery and emotion. However, the movie relies too much on Oyelowo’s acting, and he can only carry the film so far.
As a whole, “A United Kingdom” is passable. Its dialogue is not utterly bland, the acting is strong for the most part, and in the end it is a remarkable story that actually occurred in history. However, in order to tell this story, the filmmakers resorted to cliches, creating a movie that tries so hard to be multi-dimensional that it turns out as flat as they come.
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