31 Days, 31 Movies 12/13: A United Kingdom
Mmm good ol’ fashion tea and crumpet English colonialist racism. My favorite. David Oyelowo is fast becoming the man you go to if you’re making an important historical biopic. A United Kingdom follows up a run of Selma, Nina, and Queen of Katwe. Oyelowo certainly has the poise and presence to pull off these rolls and has yet to disappoint in a single one. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to see him in a CGI action spectacle. But until I finally get to see Oyelowo play Blue Marvel playing alongside Rosamund Pike in the Amma Asante directed film is just as sweet.
At times the drama of this film gets lost on me, if someone had told me that it was my responsibility from birth to be king of Batswana I would spend most of my life trying to figure out how to get out of it. And if it turned out the most prudent way of shirking that responsibility was to marry Rosamund Pike it would not be much of a decision. But that is hardly the point of this film. What I or in fact you might do in the place of Prince Seretse Khama is quite irrelevant indeed.
This is Amma Asante’s third feature-length film as director following up 2013’s Belle. Belle was a decently made historical biopic led by a charismatic cast, much like A United Kingdom. And on the second go-round Asante has more perfected her craft. The production design and the way that Asante shoots the harsh settings of A United Kingdom are the highlights of her work behind the camera. But in character driven biopics like A United Kingdom or Belle the unfortunate truth of it is that unless your work is exemplary–see Shindler’s List, Ray, The Social Network–or truly awful–see J. Edgar where Clint Eastwood really fucked over a great cast of actors–the work behind the camera is often lost in the shuffle. Asante does well-enough to point the camera at the movie stars and make a movie.
The historical story mired in racial unrest has been oft-explored and at this point it may have run its course: Marshall, 42, Race, Detroit, Remember the Titans, The Butler, Ali, Malcolm X, Hidden Figures, The Help, the list goes on and on. For more than a decade it feels like we’ve seen every single possible version of this movie. Not that there aren’t more important stories to tell in this area, there are, there may be infinite numbers of stories left to explore but that does not a great movie make. It feels like in 2017 it requires the best possible version of this movie to break through. And there is just too much wrong with A United Kingdom to really break through. The pacing of the film is uneven, at almost two hours it is a good length, but Asante devotes too much time to too many storylines to ever explore one fully. I would have loved to see the struggle that Ruth Williams goes through to earn the respect of her husband’s people but it just flips like a switch when the plot needs it; at one point they hate her and the next they love her. She also shoots with a very soft lens, light in the background bleeds into the foreground in a stylistic choice that I find distracting but that I cannot fault her for. Aside from small narrative slips like that the biggest issue with A United Kingdom is most of the cast outside of its two stars. There are some good performances in the supporting cast; Abena Ayivor is a delight in the very small amount of time she is allowed and Terry Pheto does a decent job as Naledi Khama the sister of Seretse. On the other hand however Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are allotted a lot of screen time and do the film a disservice because of it. I have never had a problem with Davenport, I love him in Coupling and Breathless but here he seems to be reprising his role in the Pirates of the Carribean series which was particularly uninteresting. And I know its blasphemous to say anything negative about Tom Felton but even though I love Harry Potter more than the next guy, he’s never really been a good actor and it shows here.
Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo are fantastic and under the steady hand of Amma Asante behind the camera. A United Kingdom is a good version of a very familiar movie but a weak supporting cast and a lack of narrative focus stop it from being great.