You’d be forgiven for approaching this third film from former child actress Amma Asante with an open heart.
Her previous work was the deservedly – and internationally – decorated 18th-century period drama Belle. The film deftly combined delectable production values and fine acting with a politically freighted true story of a mixed-race woman brought up in an aristocratic family at a pivotal time for abolitionism. It wore its 21st-century righteous indignation lightly and made a persuasive retrospective case for multicultural tolerance.
Asante’s well-intentioned follow-up, another true story with an incendiary racial edge, this time from the post-war era of the 20th century, has its heart similarly in the right place.
Like Dido’s story in Belle, it’s a tale perhaps previously little known, despite its geopolitical consequences. It revolves around the interracial marriage of London clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) to African prince-in-waiting Seretse Khama (strident black British actor of the moment David Oyelowo), who became the first president of Botswana after leading the former British protectorate to independence.
At the fag-end of the British Empire, this country’s reliance on South Africa’s cheap minerals at a time of apartheid made denunciation of the marriage a UK government priority, while South Africa tried to have Seretse’s chieftanship discredited.
Adapted by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) from Susan Williams’s non-fiction account Colour Bar, the rather clunkily retitled A United Kingdom initially focuses on the couple’s courtship while Oxford-educated Seretse is studying to be a barrister in London.
Pike does her best to establish Ruth as anything but arm-candy, heated in debate and willing to risk ostracism by parents horrified at her impending marriage to an African prince. (Although we never really get under the skin of her admirably progressive attitude to race.)
But while he is attacked by racist thugs in London, she must bear a subtler form of animosity based on the colour of her skin: the collective cold shoulder from his tribe when they return to Africa to rule – or not, as it turns out, as Seretse’s uncle and the Bamangwato elders refuse to confirm him as the leader that he was intended to be.
Oyelowo brings muscular dignity and at least one Selma-recalling speech to his portrayal of Seretse – first seen in a boxing ring, to underline his pugnacious strength – but what’s missing is the sense of passion in his and Pike’s courageously government-defying romance.
It seems glib to say it, but A United Kingdom is too neatly black and white. The white-suited British antagonists – typified by Jack Davenport’s diplomat, lacking only a waxed moustache – feel as two-dimensional as the local people in Bechuanaland (renamed Botswana in 1966), who are conversely depicted as saintly, modest and wise.
Such shortcuts diminish the cumulative power of the drama, with even the gravest threats seemingly defused over gin on the veranda. That Oyelowo and Pike are forced, by historical record, to spend much of the film on different continents only fuels the nagging disconnect between them; their deep connection seems middle-aged before they’ve really got started.
The real locations in Botswana and London lend a photogenic authenticity to events, and Asante has a keen eye – when Ruth touches down in London in the midst of the scandal and is met by her disapproving parents (well played by Anastasia Hille and Nicholas Lyndhurst), we nervously view her father as she does, in snatched glimpses amid the pushing crowd.
In bringing a little-told chapter of history to a wider audience at a time of ethnic tensions in the UK and abroad, Asante should be applauded; she remains a force for good, and in many ways her film is more focused than the thematically similar but more historically weighed down Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. If only her film sang, rather than sat round a table and reasoned.
A United Kingdom is in cinemas on Friday 25 November
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