‘A United Kingdom’ Doesn’t Differentiate Itself From Other Teary-Eyed Historical Dramas

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A United Kingdom

The stuff of fairy tales often feature a nice girl who meets a charming young man only to discover that he’s royalty. Their whirlwind romance whisks them away to his kingdom where they live happily ever after. Sometimes these kind of things happen in real life, as was the case with Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama in 1947. However, Ruth being a nice English girl and Seretse being royalty from Africa led to all sorts of political strife as their union was frowned upon for no other reason than the difference in their skin color. Their romance is the subject of A United Kingdom, a film by director Amma Asante which hits all of the generic notes expected of a would-be prestige picture. A United Kingdom is remarkably dry and clichéd and fails to find much depth in this story that defied one kingdom and united another.

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is finishing his studies in London as his Uncle has Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) rules over the people of the African nation of Bechuanaland in his absence. One night a social function, Seretse catches the eye of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an English woman living with her parents and sister. The two quickly form a romantic bond and agree to marry before travelling back to Seretse’s land of Bechuanaland in order to ascend to the throne. This union doesn’t please many outside the loving relationship as Ruth is shunned by her father and Seretse must face the disapproval of his uncle. Compounding matters is the resistance presented by the British officers who want to destroy this marriage as to appease the racist and brutal regime within South Africa. Once back in Bechuanaland, both Seretse and Ruth face various forms of scorn for their forbidden love, with Tshekedi trying to usurp Seretse from the throne as Ruth is shunned by the women of the nation. Eventually love conquers all, be it the British Empire or racial discrimination and everyone lives happily ever after because this is that sort of movie.

The source of A United Kingdom’s greatest weakness comes in the form of the script by Guy Hibbert. The dialogue is leaden and obvious in the most grating manner possible. The scenarios unfold without a bit of suspense or intrigue. You know exactly what’s about to happen before it happens because that’s just the way things unfold in this sort of movie. The British officers (played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton) never approach anything resembling real people, even the worst aspects of British imperialism. These characters are written like villains in an historical biopic, speaking only in nefarious tones with blunt language that was likely printed in bold so that nobody misses the point. That same lack of depth is given to the people Bechuanaland, all speaking down to Ruth because she could never understand their way of life – that is, until she does and everyone has an epiphany and gets along in the glimmering images of magic hour photography. There is no subtext in A United Kingdom, just boldface text that has been highlighted and underlined for further emphasis on what is already quite obvious.

Both David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike avail themselves well considering the strikingly unoriginal take on the subject matter. As he’s proven in films like Selma, Oyelowo can easily handle giving moving, impassioned speeches as a plea to our better selves and he does such here in of the film’s most effective moments. Opposite Oyelowo, Pike injects A United Kingdom with its rare moments of humor. The inescapable fact is that each are underutilized in a film that his little interest in anything beyond the surface level tale of a forbidden love in the face of racism.

Working with an obviously weak script leaves director Amma Asante hamstrung, but even then she seems content to just let A Kingdom United play out in the most rote way possible. The moments of levity are few and far between as Asante allows the movie to feel monotone throughout its two-hour running time. This is a weepy historical drama with the hopes of awards on its mind and little else. The courtship of the romance between Seretse and Ruth comes across as rushed and the persecution they face feels as by-the-numbers as it gets. Because this movie doesn’t have an original bone in its body, A United Kingdom concludes with title cards that appear between pictures of the real life Seretse and Ruth, a common contrivance in films of this ilk.

The clichéd Oscar bait nature of A United Kingdom best serves a reminder to just how special last year’s interracial marriage drama Loving truly was. Where Loving eschewed each and every aspect of the generic Oscar bait movie, A United Kingdom falls into these traps repeatedly with nothing to separate it from the pack of countless other historical dramas that cover the same territory. Aside from its unoriginal form, A United Kingdom underwhelms in part because it seeks to wrap everything up with a happy ending, as if this one marriage singlehandedly undermined opposition to interracial marriage once and for all. If only there was a final word on the subject.

A United Kingdom
  • Overall Score
2

Summary

A by-the-numbers historical drama, A United Kingdom features two solid lead performances but never finds its own rhythm outside the prestige picture template.

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