Films are never seen in a vacuum and no more obvious has this felt than with the opening of A United Kingdom at the London Film Festival. Just the title of Amma Asante’s film has led to a great many people commenting on the irony of it in the wake of divisions that have grown in the UK before and since the vote to leave the European Union in June. A United Kingdom tells a vital and historically important story, and considering the difficult and frankly racist period that the UK and it’s government are going through right now, it is an important tonic that teaches important lessons that apply as well today as they would have done when the film’s true-life events were occurring.
An important lesson in history and humanity is not a film though, and where Asante’s A United Kingdom sadly falls down is in having a great deal going for it beyond this laudable aim. And by using such heavy hands in delivering the big issues that A United Kingdom deals in, there is also a serious problem with them falling so heavily that one can’t invest beyond a simplistic, distanced admiration of the idea. This is no more apparent than in the way in which the love affair between the central couple is handled.
A United Kingdom begins with the courtship of its two main protagonists, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). He is the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland – which would become known as Botswana after declaring independence in 1966 – and she is a British clerk. The pair meet at a Missionary Society dance after their eyes literally meet across a crowded room and Patrick Doyle’s cloying score leaves you in no doubt about how you are supposed to feel. We then see them fall in love, or at least that seems to be what we are supposed to see. Their relationship is boiled down to the simplest of signifiers and even once they are married we see their affection in cliched moments that come across more like footnotes to the wider story – a scene in which they dance to distant music after having had a few too many drinks is a prime example of this sort of simplistic addition to add a bit romance that never connects.
Later in the film Seretse comments that they are just pawns in a wider political game being played – primarily between Britain and South Africa, but also involving American mining concerns in the area – but this could also be a fair criticism of the way in which he and Ruth are being used narratively. They are our way into the story, a way in which to humanise a history lesson for audiences and a way of investing them in the struggle going on. But by neglecting and oversimplifying this relationship and these characters – Ruth begins as mostly silent and lacking in defining characteristics, and even after going through changes that strengthen her, she still lacks any real dynamism – this investment is undermined or at worst nonexistent.
The filmmaking choices throughout A United Kingdom also follow this rather simplistic, undercooked and far too often, by-the-numbers approach, with framing and editing patterns often seeming to follow rigid structures, rather than being used to aid the telling of the story. It’s possible, for instance, to easily guess from an establishing shot what the next few shot are going to be of and how they will be framed. This would not necessarily be such a great issue if there was more to the film in other areas – competency throughout the filmmaking is more than a great many films have – but couple this with so much else that comes across very much like simply connecting the dots, and it becomes yet another example of something that needed an injection of something more.
A United Kingdom is a film that deserves to be seen for the importance of its subject matter, but those seeking more from it than simply an easily digestible history and humanity lesson, may struggle to find much to engage or invest in.