To open the 2016 London Film Festival with a movie entitled A United Kingdom is a bold statement, given the ever-more fractured state of contemporary Britain. A message of hope through unity and setting aside racial differences thanks to education and shared experiences is vital in the current climate, and for displaying that to the public at large, A United Kingdom deserves credit. What a shame, then, that the film itself should prove such a letdown, disastrous editing choices made in the first 25 minutes putting paid to the possible power of the rest of the story. The remarkable lives of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) deserve a better screen representation than this, as do the actors who put such effort into portraying them.
Seretse Khama was the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, now Botswana, in 1947. A British imperial protectorate bordering the vile but vital ally, South Africa, affairs in Bechuanaland were closely controlled by the British. During Seretse’s education in London, he met Ruth Williams, white daughter of an English salesman. Their falling in love and eventual plans to marry were not only met with the typical racist scorn of the time, but proved a huge diplomatic issue, initially regarded with a mix of confusion and contempt by the people of Bechuanaland and threatening Britain’s relationship with the Apartheid state of South Africa.
Guy Hibbert’s script breezes through Seretse and Ruth’s courtship far too quickly for any of it to land with any weight, and the slight direction by Amma Asante coupled with weird editing really exacerbates this problem. Despite solid work from Pike and Oyelowo, who still manages to put some real power and depth in his performance, I never bought that this couple would risk everything for their love. All we see of them before their marriage is attending some dances together and an almost-montage sequence of them going on various walks.
A United Kingdom can’t wait to get itself into Bechuanaland to explore the political connotations of its love story, and in its impatience completely forgets to make the central romance compelling. Without that core element working, the state-level conflicts feel forced and unnatural, though Jack Davenport does a good job as the villain of the piece, playing reptilian imperial bureaucrat Sir James Canning. After the overly speedy first act, plenty of the later scenes in Bechuanaland start to drag, and despite having a black director telling the story, there are too many moments where A United Kingdom feels like yet another story of the black ‘other’ told through white eyes.
Asante makes some interesting directorial choices, with the warm colours of Africa contrasting sharply with the constant grey-blue palette of Britain, but the overall visuals of the film are pretty pedestrian. This would be fine in a romantic biopic if the script was up to scratch, but here it’s clichéd and shallow. It would be pretty much impossible for Oyelowo to turn in a bad performance, but he’s fighting the rest of the film here to bring real emotional heft. Disappointing both as the LFF opening film and as a showcase for diverse filmmaking, A United Kingdom is a very underwhelming entry to this year’s awards season.