In 2014, director Amma Asante – former actress turned filmmaker – hit the scene in a big way with one of the most underrated films of that year, Belle. Actually her sophomore feature, she’d previously been named Most Promising Newcomer at the BAFTAs in 2005, a prescient prediction.
This week, Asante returns with her latest film, A United Kingdom, the true story of a ground-breaking, continent-crossing interracial marriage built around a top-caliber cast that ultimately saves it from slipping into risky Hallmark-movie-schmaltz territory.
It’s 1947 and David Oyelowo and Rosemund Pike are Seretse Khama and Ruth William Khama, the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) and his white British wife, an office clerk he meets at a missionary dance, respectively. Falling fast in love, the two would go on to defy their families and their governments in their vow to each other and, just as neighboring South Africa sought to write Apartheid into law, they’d ultimately change the fate of their nations and do their part to nudge global racial politics towards equality.
Assante, who did the based-on-a-true-story thing to great effect in Belle, revisits many of the same sentiments in A United Kingdom. The themes of race and power and society norms are all there. And no doubt, the life the Khama’s led was dramatic in many ways. Unfortunately, boiling it down to just under two hours doesn’t give an audience the time it needs to fall in love with them the way they do each other. Their arduous love story, which in real life one can only imagine was scary and difficult and incredibly tempting to give up on, is so zipped up into a series of plot check-boxes studiously marked off that it prevents the drama from ever becoming the visceral, emotional journey their lives must’ve been.
And yet. That cast. Those performances. Whatever Asante said or did on set to elicit such wonderful portrayals from her lead actors, it worked – and how.
If you haven’t yet seen David Oyelowo’s powerhouse performance in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, please stop reading now and rectify that situation. While you’re at it, take in Rosemund Pike in Gone Girl.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
See what I mean? These two are legendary, turning in fierce performances with juicy, meaty material. Oyelowo’s snub at the Oscars was one of many missed recognitions that led to the infamous #OscarsSoWhite memes of 2015. Pike’s “cool girl” casting in Gone Girl took that high-profile adaptation to heights Girl on the Train could only dream of.
With less impressive material to work with in A United Kingdom, both still manage to infuse their performances, which play strongly off of each other even in scenes that take place over the telephone, separated by continents, with a humanity and range few in their shoes could deliver. Oyelowo carries Seretse with dignity, even as he’s being demeaned and diminished; Pike transforms Ruth from a simple Londoner who supported the war effort to a political wife with panache and poise.
Both are supported by a strong ensemble cast including Tom Felton (who also starred in Belle), Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey‘s Lady Edith) and Jessica Oyelowo in a small supporting role, who is actually David Oyelowo’s real-life white wife, a coincidence he hasn’t been shy about relating to the making of this film.
A United Kingdom is a perfect February release, certainly because it makes for a perfectly non-threatening, romantic Valentine’s date, but mainly because of its imperfections. It’s not quite strong enough to compete in an intense Fall calendar, but it’s got a lot going for it nevertheless. If you’ve seen all the Oscar nominees (or aren’t interested in them); if you’re looking for something to take the family to see; if you can appreciate solid performances and lush production value around a too-polished script, it’s message of love against all the odds, of fighting for what’s right is certainly something we could use more of in the world.
A United Kingdom – dir Amma Asante, written by Guy Hibbert. Starring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael. Opens in Chicago Friday, Feb. 17. Official Site
Passes the Bechdel Test: Yes
Passes the DuVernay Test: Yes