After watching Gone Girl I promised myself that I will never go watch a film with Rosamund Pike in it, mainly because she scares me shitless. But I sure am glad I broke that promise and went to watch A United Kingdom.
Apart from the infamous Rosamund Pike, the film also stars David Oyelowo (Selma) and is directed by Amma Asante. The film is a biographical romantic drama, based on the true story of Seretse Khama, a (royal from what is now the Republic of Botswana) and his British wife, Ruth. The plot depicts their love story and their fight to stay together in a time where the British Empire was a major player and “apartheid” was the new hot word. This film couldn’t be released in a more relevant political climate. It is enough to check the comment section of the trailer to see a repetition of the racial sentiments presented in the film; which is a scary reality when you think that the film is set in 1947 and we live in 2016. I’m not even going to discuss the feeble political decisions of the UK or the impending doom of the recent US elections, because it is not that sort of article- you get what I mean though: the film is relevant to the current political turmoil and recurring discussions around race and racism.
In this context, the film presents the story of two people caught in a fragile political setting, where their personal decisions were closely interlinked with national ones. As the king of his tribe Seretse (David Oyelowo) faces the rejection of his people, a break in the family relations between him and his uncle and the wrath of England, just because he married a white, British woman. On her end, Ruth (played by Pike) struggles to be accepted into a culture she knows nothing about and has to face the absurdity of her own imperialist country. Ironically, it is through her eyes that we see the oppression Black people have to face in their own country and how ridiculous it is: Whites only areas, a prohibition on alcohol, having to abide to the political rules of the British. It is through Seretse’s eyes that we see the impotence of the oppressed. Many times during the film you wish that he just got up and punched the British authorities in the face, but, sadly, for many reasons, he can’t. And it is because of that frustration that the film is so relevant.
Although it is not packed with a suspenseful storyline, the film subtly switches your gaze. As a white audience you start to sympathise with the African struggle, even though you probably weren’t even born at the time, apartheid is only history to you, and you are most definitely not a person that had to worry about the colour of their skin. But the story plays on something we can all relate to: feeling vulnerable. The power of this film lies in its ability to show that we are all people, without being cheesy. In showing that no matter the place we come from there are certain principles we can all stand by: integrity, the freedom to make personal decisions, having control over your life; just as there are certain things that make us uncomfortable: humiliation, vulnerability, manipulation.
The only criticism I can bring to this film has to do with some of the characters’ development and the somewhat clichéd imagery towards the end. When I talk about character development I mean the characters who are meant to be “the bad guys”, the representatives of the British Empire. I am aware that the way they were played is meant to portray the rigidity and pride of the Empire- the characters are a bit like British food: bland and kind of dull once the novelty element is gone. However, I believe that making them more multidimensional might have added to the credibility of the story. Their blind loyalty to the British system made the film feel a bit repetitive: you could predict their reaction to most situations and by the end of the film you just wished they’d drown in a tub of fancy English sherry.
In terms of imagery, Amma Asante went a bit too far in portraying the idea of otherness. She does take the Other and makes us identify with it quite majestically but the “exotic” imagery of Africa that she presents towards the end of the film with no apparent purpose did make me roll my eyes a little bit. Yes Africa is beautiful, its people are culturally diverse and the landscape is breath-taking, but surely there are better ways of portraying it than shots of a rhinoceros moving in slow motion.
But at the end of the day the film does two important things. Firstly, it shows that the greatness of the British Empire is only a matter of perspective. Secondly, it teaches us that if two people decided to get married and go against two powerful countries and the general belief that their relationship was a travesty, we, in the present day, with all the racial progress that has been done, can get our heads out of our arses and work towards building bridges instead of reinforcing old walls. And I believe that this message couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.
A United Kingdom is in cinemas from November 25