A United Kingdom (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Respectful but conventional

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“A United Kingdom” is a respectful but conventional film about one extraordinary real-life interracial couple. While it surely shows us how courageous and resilient they were as standing together against lots of social/political pressure inflicted upon them, the movie unfortunately does not have enough life and personality to distinguish itself in terms of story and character, and that is a shame considering its several good things including its two versatile main performers.

The early part of the movie is about how Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) met and then fell in love with each other in London, 1947. As the future king of Bechuanaland, a British protectorate located near South Africa, Seretse has studied in Britain for years, and now he is almost ready to take his regal position, but then he accidentally encounters Ruth, a British middle-class office worker who happens to come along with her sister to a dance party attended by Seretse and his friends. When Seretse and Ruth notice each other for the first time, it is apparent that something clicks between them, and they soon find themselves happily dancing with each other after their formal mutual introduction.

As they spend more time with each other, Seretse and Ruth come to feel more affection toward each other. Even after Seretse reveals to her that he is going to go back to his country as its new king, Ruth continues to love him as before, and Seretse eventually comes to propose to her. Although they surely know how things will be quite different for them once they officially become husband and wife, they are willing to take risks for their love nonetheless, so they quickly marry after she says yes to his proposal.

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Of course, the situation soon becomes quite difficult for both of them. Ruth is disowned from her conservative parents who simply cannot accept her relationship with Seretse, and Seretse is not welcomed much by his uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) when he and Ruth arrive together in Bechuanaland. Tshekedi wants his nephew to divorce Ruth and then marry someone else who looks more appropriate to be the queen of their country, and so does the British government, which does not want to get into any political trouble because of Seretse and Ruth’s marriage.

Despite their increasing difficulty, Seretse and Ruth become more determined to stick together as they always have. Even without the support from his uncle and the British government, Seretse succeeds in drawing considerable support from many people after making a passionate speech at a public meeting. Although there are so many new things she has to learn and get accustomed to, Ruth keeps trying everyday, and she eventually gets some help and support from Seretse’s younger sister Naledi (Terry Pheto).

However, they cannot help but frustrated as constantly pressured by the British government. At one point, Seretse is sent to London and then pushed into exile, and Ruth has to take care of not only herself but also their newborn baby. At least, they can sometimes talk with each other by long distance, but they only come to miss each other more, and the circumstance remains hopeless for them.

Around this part, the screenplay Guy Hibbert, which is based on Susan Williams’ nonfiction book “Colour Bar”, tries to bring some dramatic tension to the story, but it is often hampered by weak storytelling and thin characterization. As following predictable narrative arc, Hibbert’s adapted screenplay does not interest or entertain us much, and it also fails to bring enough human passion and complexity to its two main characters. Sure, they look brave and noble as expected, but they also look blandly clean-cut at times, and it looks like Hibbert’s screenplay respects them a little too much.

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Nevertheless, the lead performers of the movie acquit themselves well. While David Oyelowo, who previously drew lots of attention for his electrifying performance in “Selma” (2014), ably handles several big speech scenes including the aforementioned one, Rosamund Pike, who was memorable in “Gone Girl” (2014), balances her character well between resilience and vulnerability, and their good chemistry on the screen is the main reason why the movie works to some degrees. Whenever Oyelowo and Pike are together, we can sense their character’s strong personality, and it is regrettable that the movie does not utilize more of their undeniable talent and presence.

In case of the supporting performers surrounding Oyelowo and Pike, they are mostly wasted in their stereotype roles. While Vusi Kunene and Terry Pheto bring some dignity to their characters, Jack Davenport and Tom Felton look stiff, arrogant, and odious as the main bad guys of the movie, and you may be amused to know that Jessica Oyelowo, who is Oyelowo’s wife, plays one of the haughty British characters in the film.

Compared to director Amma Asante’s previous film “Belle” (2013), “A United Kingdom” is less compelling in many aspects, but I was not that bored mainly thanks to Oyelowo and Pike, and I also enjoyed the vivid mood contrast between London and Bechuanaland in the movie. The movie is fairly watchable, but I cannot help but feel that Mr. and Mrs. Khama deserve something more special than this.

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