Saturday 26 November 2016

Review: A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom
Cert: 12A / 111 mins / Dir. Amma Asante / Trailer

And so Amma Asante's new film, the eagerly awaited project following 2013's Belle, lands in cinemas earlier than you'd expect, with January usually leading the charge for politically and emotionally heavyweight fare. The story centres around the post-war romance between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a financial clerk he meets while in London training to be a barrister. With Ruth's Britain still reeling from the effects of the Second World War and Seretse's deeply traditional homeland on edge about their ongoing partnership with the British Empire, their marriage was never going to be easy. But when government agent Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) gleefully informs them that their union has far-reaching political ramifications, personal loyalties weigh as heavily as societal responsibility…

Don't worry, it's not as heavy-going as I've made it sound. Which is sort of an issue, if I'm being honest. That the film is Worthy™ is of no doubt, and Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo's fantastic performances reflect this no end. The rest of the cast however (particularly those playing the part of the British-establishment), threaten to turn it into a slightly twee pantomime of acidic put-downs and twirling moustaches. The deportment of Jack Davenport alone brings to mind Pirates of the Caribbean, but with more racism. He's not alone though, ably supported in his weasling ways by Malfoy-Junior Emeritus himself, struggling as ever to find a role which doesn't paint him as a complete arse. To quote Mrs Blackout upon leaving the cinema, "Tom Felton's not ageing well, is he?". To which I could only reply "Yeah, he's not acting well, either…".

A lot of the biggest problem I had with the film can be summed up by the BBFC's own summary…

…where even they can't narrow the film down to one genre and have it listed as both romance and drama (and it's the BBFC's primary job to classify things, remember). There's certainly no reason why a film can't be both of course, but A United Kingdom treats these two themes as something to pull apart from each other, rather than together (which, given the central unifying thread of the film, seems counter-intuitive). The love-story between Ruth and Seretse never gets the chance to build up the emotional momentum it needs because the story's constantly being sidetracked by sketched-in political vignettes. And the events leading to the creation of Botswana aren't given nearly enough detail because of the interruption of the rushed love-story.

But the ultimate enemy of both narrative strands is time. The film covers around ten years in just under two hours, and in doing so skips forward at a pace which threatens to leave everyone behind (plus there's that thing where none of the characters appear to be ageing at all, so you're left wondering what sort of timeframe this is all happening in, especially since the '1947' caption at the beginning is followed by precisely no others). Entire scenes exist - repeatedly - where an exterior establishing shot of a building leads to a fifteen-second conversation inside it, after which the film moves to somewhere else, days/weeks later. Like the dialogue was too important to leave out, but not to the point where you'd spend any time on it. I don't know if this is down to Guy Hibbert's screenplay or the editing from Jonathan Amos and Jon Gregory, but someone's selling this story short. Literally. Another forty minutes or so, casually scattered throughout the film, would give the story room to breathe and the characters room to grow.

I have a massive amount of admiration for Asante and her work, but I'm starting to think that the delicate way she puts a film together might be at odds with the subject matter. I know not everything can be as viscerally unnerving as 12 Years, but this is the second time I've left one of her films thinking '…how are you not more furious about all this?'. Because outside of a little historical education, the only two themes I really took away from A United Kingdom are a) racism is for dicks, and b) politicians are lying, opportunist dicks. And speaking as someone at the arse-end of 2016, those are lessons I've already learned pretty damned thoroughly, thanks…

There's also the matter of an old-looking Nicholas Lyndhurst existing in the film's initial 1947 timeframe*1. Is someone going to ret-con what went wrong with the portal that caused this to happen?

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Belle, Mandela; both deal with heavy subject matter in an accessible way, and both struggle to reconcile the span of the story with the running-time of a film.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
It's a Sunday night DVD, to be fair.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Yes, but only just.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
No, not least because everyone involved has particularly strong form.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Agent Kallus is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Although I should also point out that the 55 year old Nicholas Lyndhurst looks in no way old enough to be the 37 year old Rosamund Pike's father. That it's socially and biologically feasible is irrelevant, frankly, if the audience doesn't believe it. And in this case, that means me.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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