** (out of 4)
2016 played host to two movies about interracial marriage. The first, Jeff Nichols’ Loving, wasn’t flawless, but it studiously avoided flash in its attempt to show that Mildred and Richard Loving were just an ordinary couple unwillingly thrust into the spotlight. The second is A United Kingdom — another true story, but this time about Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the king of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (today the country of Botswana), and his controversial decision in 1947 to marry a white Englishwoman named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Oyelowo and Pike are both grade-A actors — he was MLK in Selma, she Amazing Amy in Gone Girl — so you’d think that with people like them involved, this movie would be able to do good with its subject matter.
Unfortunately, if Loving just fell short of perfection, A United Kingdom isn’t even minimally decent: it’s unsubtle, superficial, and a rundown of one too many clichés about racism and love.
Start from the romance. One night, Seretse and Ruth both happen to be at the same party. After a few glances and a dance or two, they’re in love — and just a couple scenes later, with an eagerness and haste that make Anna and Hans in Frozen look not all that terrible, Seretse is already getting down on one knee with a ring. With corny dialogue that usually just oscillates between “I looove you” and “Oh no, how will we get married now?” the movie never makes an effort to explain just what it is the two see in each other. And whereas Anna and Hans eventually fell out with one another, Ruth and Seretse never come even close to conflicting over anything, barring one short scene where a (only briefly) disillusioned Ruth mutters, “We’ve misjudged this, haven’t we?” The result of it all is that we never feel the many obstacles they end up encountering are actually going to keep them apart: Pike and Oyelowo conduct themselves as if they already know they’re figures who’re going to trailblaze their way into the history books, and the anguish they attempt to show — in one particularly egregious scene, they shout each other’s names over the phone, a scene that doesn’t convey their sadness at being apart so much as it reminds you of Titanic’s “Jack! Rose! Jack! Rose!” moments — thus never feels remotely real.
But how about those obstacles? Seretse and Ruth’s marriage certainly ends up creating some issues: you can tell that much from all the people who repeat some version of “This marriage is disgraceful” to their faces. Throughout the movie, we’re made to watch as Seretse variously argues with both his uncle (Vusi Kunene) and a cadre of British government officials, and there are also a number of vague explanations of the geopolitical turmoil his marriage is apparently causing in neighboring South Africa. Yet director Amma Asante doesn’t seem to have the energy or willpower to flesh out any of these conflicts: they pop in and out of the plot with an intermittency that, as with the cheesy acting and love story, ensures the movie remains completely tension-free. Worse yet, the idyllic way Asante chooses to depict Seretse and Ruth’s overall struggle — a scene where Ruth faints under the hot African sun is about as gruesome as it gets — and the one-dimensionally caricatural way all the racist villains are portrayed both ironically reduce the gravity of the bigotry that the movie supposedly wants to indict. Prejudice comes off as a vestige of a long-gone era that can easily be overcome if you get indignant a few times, affirm ad nauseum that you love your spouse, and have a bunch of cheap comeback lines at the ready when everything magically turns your way. It’s the kind of rosy, glossy film that James Baldwin would have criticized for helping ensure that people remain “reassured of their innocence.”
In fairness, there are a couple of good things about this effort. Whether it’s intentional or not, most of the scenes involving interactions between Ruth and Seretse take place in the dark, which underscores the rule-breaking nature of their relationship. And the movie does have some fun mocking the pompous Britishness of the racist government officials who stand in Seretse and Ruth’s way: a scene where a diplomat asks for a glass of sherry after telling Seretse that the British government is forcing him into exile has a particularly nasty satirical vibe. Other than that, however, there’s almost nothing to like about this film — and the fact that this was apparently Oyelowo’s passion project for several years is yet another example of a moviemaker’s obsession gone wrong. In a year that saw the success of hard-hitting endeavors like Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro, you can’t help but feel that the triteness that fills this one belongs to an older, simpler era of moviemaking.
A United Kingdom (2016)
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike
Running Time: 111 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality.”
Produced by: Brunson Green, Charlie Mason, Rick McCallum, Cameron McCracken, Justin Moore-Lewy, David Oyelowo
Written by: Guy Hibbert. Based on Susan Williams’ 2006 book Colour Bar.
Directed by: Amma Asante