Historical biopic, though clichéd, has emotional resonance
In the late 1940s, Prince Seretse of Bechuanaland (a British protectorate in southern Africa that later became the independent Botswana) scandalized both his homeland and its imperial overlord Britain by falling in love and marrying a white British woman, Ruth Williams. A United Kingdom is a new romantic drama based on this little-known moment of 20th century history and starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.
Although the story at its center is compelling, the impact of the film itself suffers because A United Kingdom plays out like virtually every other film you have seen about an unlikely romance in the midst of adversity. That poses an interesting question: Can a movie be based on a true story and still feel like a cliché? The answer, unfortunately, appears to be yes.
That is not to say that A United Kingdom is absent of any virtues. The performances of Oyelowo (Selma) and Pike (Gone Girl) are resonantly earnest; both actors are charismatic, even compelling in their roles. And, they are supported by a rich cast of British and African actors, including Jack Davenport, Laura Carmichael, Vusi Kunene, Terry Pheto and Tom Felton.
As the story takes its characters from London to Bechuanaland and back again, the two contrasting settings are gloriously photographed by Sam McCurdy, capturing with equal beauty the grey-toned austerity of urban England with the yellow and ochre hues of rural Africa. The direction by Amma Asante (Belle) is assured if cautiously paced. Patrick Doyle’s score is appropriately sumptuous and expansive.
Even Guy Hibbert’s screenplay rings with occasional rousing speeches and taut dialogue. Nevertheless, the plotting of A United Kingdom checks off every box of the typical “fish out of water,” cross-cultural romantic drama: violent altercation with bigoted street toughs, check; tearful rejection by hard-hearted parent, check; unexpected hostility from the sisterhood, check; late-night questioning tete-a-tete between lovers, check, check and check. The fact that all of this is biographical doesn’t save it from being sadly predictable.
On the other hand, the geopolitical machinations that overlay this story are intriguing to watch. Because Seretse Khama was the presumptive ruler of a British protectorate, his controversial marriage became a flashpoint in Britain’s relationships with other African countries, most notably apartheid-era South Africa. It is also unique to see the conflict played out in on two continents and within two political realities.
Overall, A United Kingdom is a sturdy, well-made, and satisfying biopic, exploring a fascinating chapter of world history that blends the personal and political. One only wishes that the filmmakers had worked harder to tell this fresh story in a truly fresh manner.