No matter in what form films having to deal with social issues like racism, sexism and other forms of inequality appear, their societal importance will always be a redeeming factor. I’ve always felt that film is a powerful form of storytelling that can move people and transport them. That is one of the reasons I devote so much time to examining them. Films about historic societal struggles have started becoming more and more common, but no less important in today’s society. Films like A United Kingdom may offer a very familiar cinematic approach, but prove to be no less worthy of being told.
The story follows Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), an incumbent African king studying in London. While studying law, Khama falls for Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and they elope despite every attempt to stop their union. The problem with their marriage was of course racially and politically motivated. South Africa, under British control, wanted to keep segregation intact so they can keep a hold of the territories and their resources. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert develops this tale from the 1940’s not only to tell this uplifting and powerful story, but to show the parallels of segregation in American life at the time, but also how it still remains a problem today.
Hibbert tells the story through the scope of their relationship, showing the strength and bond of love being the uniting force behind all of their actions. This would be a wonderfully optimistic approach if the film didn’t feel like it sacrificed some of the darker and uglier aspects of racism. You feel their connection and recognize that it is the focus of the film, but lose some of the potency that could have been developed by showing how his people were suffering under these unjust rules. Where Hibbert does compensate for this is by incorporating accurate traditions and culture-specific aspects like clothing, language, etc. That ends up being one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film.
The beauty in this film is undeniable, and I am not just talking about the cinematography. Director Amma Asante has given us regal traditions and aesthetic in her previous film, Belle, and continues to do so for A United Kingdom. Much is different between the two films (time periods aside) because they each represent aristocracy in different parts of the world. Asante easily captures England in the 1940’s, but that was never in question since it has been so often done before on film that all you really need is a good costume designer, hairstylist, and access to cars from that time period. The real struggle would be to film in Africa and to accurately depict the culture with respect and compassion. Asante cleared that hurdle easily, proving she researched enough about the culture to respectfully depict their traditions and customs on screen. The gorgeous views of Africa and beautiful attention to detail is almost enough to make you forgive the predictable approach to Hallmark storytelling and the slightly sugarcoated tone that was meant to boost the signal of the love story. Almost.
When it comes hero tales such as this one, the typical approach is to highlight all of the adversity and show how it personally affects the hero of this story. Every other character is secondary to the hero as the film uses their struggle and pain as a way to draw more attention the who the film feels is most important, in this case, David Oyelowo’s character. Oyelowo is the unshakeable focus of this film and put in the familiar role of a leader that he seems to be typecast into. I don’t have a problem with this because he is a strong, compelling actor that is able to play these emotionally complex savior roles naturally. My problem came with the treatment of Rosamund Pike’s character and how little she was developed. It is well known that Ruth Williams Khama was a strong political activist, and even though she doesn’t fully embrace it until after the events of the film, it should have been hinted more in this film. Instead, they opt to have her as a mostly passive character (especially when she is by herself), up until the end when she is reunited with her husband and they confront the British law. Pike does the best that she can with the character, but is ultimately written to be a vehicle for Seretse’s emotional development. The entire film carries a message of equality through partnership, and I wish it would have been adopted much stronger into the relationship between Ruth and Seretse together and separately.
Messages, like the ones inside of A United Kingdom, are important no matter where or what time period they exist in. These stories are necessary reminders of the mistakes of our past that bear repeating so that they don’t happen again. Just because the separations between race, sexuality, and gender are spelled out like they were in the 1940’s, their presence still exists in different ways. Even though every aspect of the approach to this film is obvious and done to death, there is still a message worth telling about a story most of our younger generation don’t know but should know about (much like Hidden Figures).
A United Kingdom is now playing in theaters.