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Friday, February 24, 2017

Movie Review: #AUnitedKingdom

Race, love, colonialism, politics, and diamonds are all on the table in the period drama A United Kingdom

Review by Matt Cummings

A United Kingdom posits an important question without being willing to come up with an answer: why is race still such a politically-charged subject for so many around the world? Viewers will need to find those answers elsewhere, although the few that will see this indie drama will enjoy the well-appointed acting and beautifully-shot landscapes, while chagrining at its paint-by-the-numbers racist villains.

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland and (eventually) his country’s first democratically-elected president, falls in love with Ruth (Rosamund Pike) while studying law in 1947 London. Ruth, a beautiful but simple office worker, shares Khama's love of jazz, but is aware that many (including her father) don't approve of her grand plan to marry Khama. Neither does the English government, lead by a snooty chancellor (Jack Davenport), who together act as protectorates from the evil intentions of South Africa. But when the couple naively fly to Bechuanaland in defiance, they realize that racism might travel in both directions, as Khama's people don't want Ruth as their queen. Faced with withering support abroad and at home, Ruth and Khama forge a quiet resistance, while Seretse's uncle demands the future king divorce Ruth or give up his throne. Their efforts - and the discovery of diamonds in this disease-ridden and desolate country - will alter Bechuanaland forever and serve as a blueprint for for future protesters the idea behind peaceful resistance.

Director Amma Asante first caught my attention with her 2014 period drama Belle, and much like Kingdom, it follows a similar idea. She never dives too deeply into the water of racism, but isn't quite caught wading into the kiddie pool either. Asante does excel at telling a direct story, mixing interesting bits of history into the narrative and forcing her characters to react. She's a competent filmmaker, joined here by Cinematographer Sam McCurdy, who bathes both the African outback and bustling London in gorgeous colors. Her leads are also extremely talented, with Oyelowo coming across as a dignified and charming hero for his people and making Pike's Ruth an equal in almost every way sans her lack of title. Pike is the kind of actress we love to see, which the camera loves, and who has recently turned in a series of excellent performances (Gone Girl and Jack Reacher). These elements manage to bribe the audience with its charm and confidence, all while hiding Kingdom's many faults.

Kingdom's first act is beset by whipsaw tonal shifts and poor editing. You can see that every scene has been unceremoniously trimmed for time, as Asante desires to keep the story moving towards the more juicier elements of Act 2. But it's hacksaw all the way there, bumping and bruising its elegant motif just to save 10-15 minutes of (maybe) interesting set up. Once we get to the meat of the film, it becomes something else, perhaps that interesting political drama we were waiting for. But it also features a duo of mustache-twirling baddies including Davenport and later Tom Fulton, whom I've recently enjoyed in The Flash, mostly because he's not the bully from Harry Potter but a sympathetic victim and a bit of an English jerk. Here, he's just a thinly-envisioned amalgam of apartheid-esque viewpoints, as he and Davenport become mere plot devices made simply for us to hate.

We never get much detail about the people of Bechuanaland, who make an incredibly difficult decision to forgo hundreds of years of tradition to bring their kingdom into the modern era. That alone should have been an entire movie, laid out by a deep and talented black cast, but instead Asante props Oyelowo on the hood of a car and makes an impassioned speech that of course wins over the crowd. All of this storytelling is accelerated, ostensibly because this is supposed to be a story of love and perseverance, but so much interesting stuff is happening behind it that I wish we had been given more time to let it all play out. Granted, we would be talking about a lot longer film, but much like its approach to racism, Kingdom merely paints by the numbers instead of bravely forging its own message.

A United Kingdom is a typical indie movie that works too hard to rise above its many, many plot points. It can't decide if it's a shrewd commentary on race, a love story, or a political drama. But it's gorgeous and well-acted, even if its villains are mustache-twirly in their openly racist views. Given the charged political atmosphere of a Trump America, A United Kingdom might be worth your time to remind you of what our world promises to be when we lift our preconceived notions about race and accept each other as equals.

A United Kingdom is rated PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality and has a runtime of 111 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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