“We’ll take it moment-by-moment, together.”
At its best, A United Kingdom is an unabashedly romantic dramatization. Filled with empathy, goodwill and unwavering compassion, director Amma Asante’s true life account positively flutters with acceptance, connectivity and intense fidelity to the plight of its central characters. It’s an unmistakably human period piece, particularly in the wake of unending injustice in our modern lives, and it’s radiant in its persistence and allegiance towards finding the greater good in humanity, particularly admit unending dismay and political uncertainty. If only the film itself was as sparkling as its familiar-but-nevertheless-very-needed message of understanding, hopefulness and welcoming.
A sincere, if heavy-handed and plainly melodramatic, biopic based on the entangled lives of Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike), a bi-racial married couple who succumb to unending tribulations when their newfound relationship is not respected or accepted by either family, including Seretse’s South African royalty, it’s paved with meaningful commentary and stark social relevance. Most notably, it’s telling on the state of love and devotion in a world that doesn’t have the common decency to believe two people can truly care for one another away from the color of their skin. It’s a familiar story, and it certainly feels like one, but it’s also one that holds great power and tremendous respectability. If only it felt compelled to become more than the sum of its parts, i.e. a banal, by-the-numbers forbidden romance drama that’s not particularly inspired or passionate, even when the leads act their hearts out. It weirdly needs more heart.
Good intentions are noble, but they’re not enough to celebrate such underwhelming execution. A United Kingdom not only parades a corny title but a clear respect for the sappy old-fashioned romances. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that Asante fails to provide the smoldering passion needed to make such heightened emotions earned. It’s ham-fisted without being truly invigorating. It’s not subtle in the slightest to make the characters’ journey genuine. It’s a calculated-to-a-fault bore that lacks the spontaneity and looseness needed for this romance to truly breathe.
Oyelowo, who also produces, is tremendous in a film that can’t live up to his excellence. Pike, similarly, can bring the waterworks. These are seasoned pros and they know what they’re doing but, despite their amicable-if-not-remarkable-or-believable chemistry, they’re not enough to make A United Kingdom come together on their own. Do you see what I did there? There’s no doubting their professionalism and talent, but that’s not enough sometimes. You need that feeling.
As an actors’ film, it’s not poorly-handled. Abena Ayivor, who has the radiant eyes and magnetizing presence to play Catwoman, is excellent in her supporting turn, but she’s hardly ever given enough screentime. Similarly, Jack Davenport, Laura Carmicheal, Terry Pheto, Arnold Oceng, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Jessica Oyelowo, David’s longtime wife, and Tom Felton playing dress-up with peach fuzz round out the supporting cast, but they’re often left playing second fiddle to the main stars, as per usual fashion. A United Kingdom isn’t limited in dramatics, but it’s hardly ever gripping due to its inactive execution. Scenes pass by without flow or rhythm and there’s a monotony to it all. It bumps when it should hop. It doesn’t find its sense of style or manner. Scenes happen, then they don’t.
A United Kingdom is a movie you want to love, but you barely even like. It’s not ill-mannered, poorly-handled or doubtful in its convictions, but it’s insincere, underwhelming and unconvincing — even, or especially, when our emotions on such dramatic stakes are so incredibly vulnerable right now. It’s a film plagued with clear convictions and muddled effectiveness. Much like Belle, Asante’s previous endeavor, it looks great, from the lavish cinematography to the exceptional production designs to the cunning costumes, and it’s thematically sound, for the many reasons I mentioned before, but it doesn’t feel involving. Perhaps Loving is the better deal. Or even Get Out. It’s not as disingenuous as it’s disconcerting. We need the warmth and endurance of others, but this one leaves you cold.