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Film Review: A United Kingdom @ London Film Festival 2016

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★★

A United Kingdom is a hidden gem of a story, one which few have heard of, but many have felt the impact of.

The charming yet powerful love story follows English woman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and King of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), as they fall for each other despite the forbidden circumstances of their love.

Directed by diversity advocate Amma Asante, the film, shot in Botswana and London, is an incredible tale of a love that shook two nations - yet saw those at the heart of it struggle through against all odds. Right from the offset, we see the spark ignited between Ruth and Seretse; an instinctual love that is willing to power through the racial prejudices that restrict both of them from marrying and being accepted in each other's native countries.

Jumping straight into the heart of the narrative makes the film engaging right from the start - and even though we don't know much about these people, their love is so mesmerising and genuine that it's so easy to fall in love with the story and characters right at the beginning.  

As a unique story it's one that is uniquely told; it does not follow the conventions of most films about race, avoiding the N word and predictable insults, thus allowing the main plot to be explored in greater depth, rather than trying to shock the audience about the attitudes towards black people in 1940s Britain, which we are already well aware of.

As well as this, despite being set in a time when courting and male authority was the norm in relationships, there is a great sense of equality between Ruth and Seretse. Seretse knows that he lives in a world where he is not treated equally, and perhaps for this reason his experience of this results in a gentleness and touching respect for Ruth, who he fights the legal and moral battle alongside in trying to get both governments (and families) to accept their marriage. 

David Oyelowo delivers a powerful performance, in which he must be a politician, a husband and a father. His love for Ruth is powerful and totally convincing throughout. The passion with which he delivers dialogue, especially speeches to his tribe in Bechuanaland where he is faced with huge disapproval, are hugely moving and actually quite overwhelming.

In the same way, Rosamund Pike is a perfect fit for Ruth, a role in which she plays with grace and pride, without shying away from a fight when necessary. 

In the same way that the film did not concede to the stereotypes of films about race, it did not do this with Africa either. What we see is a unique perspective of Africa that is not just staged with stereotypical straw huts and dusty villages, but has politics and embassies; Africa is not portrayed as alien and primitive.

However, sadly this overall feel of authenticity was lessened by some side performances by the likes of Tom Felton, Jack Davenport and Nicholas Lyndhurst, who look like actors who are trying to act, rather than actors just being the characters. This is in direct contrast to the authentic and believable performances by the protagonists.

Although A United Kingdom is filled with many commendable merits, something just isn’t quite there to make the film as strong as it should be. The story is undoubtedly powerful, but something about the pacing and overall execution falls short. Perhaps it is too reliant on the power of the story to carry it through, and the impact lessens throughout; we're left wanting to be wowed by film form but we just aren't.

The conflict seems to be sugar-coated, and although the passion of the cause is evidently important to Ruth and Seretse, there’s a lack of urgency and the drama of the disagreements just isn’t as engrossing as it should be.

Amma Asante has done a fantastic job in creating a unique film which is thoroughly uplifting and very moving. Yet when it boils down to the overall quality, we're left relying on the story alone to impress us. When taken scene by scene, instead of being mesmerised as we are by Ruth and Seretse's love, the political and legal struggle just isn’t as compelling.

A United Kingdom is screening as part of the 60th BFI London Film Festival this October. Further details including ticket info can be found here.




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