Directed by Amma Asante Written by Guy Hibbert Starring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael & Jessica Oyelowo Film Review by Dean Pettipher
For better or worse, one most likely needs no more than their two hands worth of fingers and thumbs to count up the number of true friends in his or her life at any given moment. Indeed, the same may also be stated concerning the number of people with whom one has honestly experienced the purest limerence. Moreover, in a reality beyond the movie theatre that is bitterly cruel at the most or notoriously indifferent at the least, albeit such circumstances might be deemed as absolutely necessary evils for ensuring that one really appreciates all of the fundamentally good parts of his or her life, coming across any truly genuine people can feel like an extremely rare phenomenon, if not an all but impossible one, which must simply be left at the mercy of serendipity. Similarly, not that often do audiences get treated to the utter delight of a movie like A United Kingdom (2016), in which the central sentiments are felt so strongly that the sheer beauty of the visual poetry consequently becomes so infectious that one cannot help but gleefully spread the glowing words of joy that have been inspired within them long before the end credits commence. The highly-acclaimed director, Christopher Nolan, best explained the notion when he asserted, “Films are subjective - what you like, what you don't like. But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it's the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they've done, I want that effort there -I want that sincerity. And when you don't feel it, that's the only time I feel like I'm wasting my time at the movies.” Bearing these thoughts in mind, whether audiences spend their time viewing the film under the most desperate of seasonal sicknesses or the most life-affirming states of Noël-induced health, they would very likely swear afterwards with clear ease that A United Kingdom is a film that shines majestically bright as one of the best love stories of the year, as well as one of the finest official opening features of London Film Festival 2016 (LFF 2016), courtesy of its proud but elegant overflow of poignant “effort”, “love” and striking “sincerity.”
After the jubilant applause offered by an audience of critics and industry delegates at the early morning LFF 2016 press screening, any clarity that they sought about just how much the cast and crew cared about their production and the astonishing true story upon which it was based would soon be offered in return by an alluringly-esteemed ensemble to those lovers of cinema who made the journey to the Mayfair Hotel for the film’s press conference. During the fruitful discussion, David Oyelowo confidently declared, “knowing that we were on the same page about how we felt about these individuals, our passion for them, our respect for them, our desire to see their story told well and truthfully and I think that that is what enabled us to go for the emotional moment and to go for the light-heartedness because we so respected the love that they shared. It was about a celebration of these two people that we really admired. Being in love is the most exhilarating feeling. It genuinely is. We so rarely see love onscreen. We see lust but this was an opportunity to really celebrate unashamedly how romantic and wonderful and powerful love is.” While Oyelowo was in truth answering a question about how he was able to work so brilliantly with his co-star, Rosamund Pike, in order to ensure that the film successfully flowed with admirable grace between moments of high intensity and moments of the more light-hearted sort, the journalists present needed never surrender to any doubt regarding the evidently boundless levels of passion felt by the filmmakers for their work. Thus, A United Kingdom was ultimately an essential and undeniably special historical period drama about the extraordinary capacity of totally genuine love. Furthermore, not least because of its critical significance in relation to the context of the grand fight for greater diversity and equality within the film industry, A United Kingdom went on to represent both the artistic and the real-life-rooted miracles, which remain ceaselessly possible to this day and well beyond, in the pursuit of such devoutly hopeful ideals.
Flinging audiences back and forth between two outwardly dissimilar but internally alike post World War II nations, the breathtakingly flamboyant cinematography, headed by the screen veteran, Sam McCurdy, paints two beautifully-contrasting settings that are both confidently showcased and therefore compelling in equal measure. London and Botswana feature as the two backdrops for a love story of truly Shakespearean proportions. The former setting is painted with vibrant shades of predominantly oxford-blue, midnight-black and flint-grey. The latter location is coated with much brighter hues of mostly deep-sky-blue, honey-yellow, tiger-orange and cinnamon-brown. Each setting features various colours in-between the two primary tint combinations in order to create two juxtaposing sceneries. The former setting captures the most bitterly freezing temperatures that London can be subjected to in the winter especially, even in the apparent absence of snow. The latter setting then propels audiences into the raging heat that often maintains an unexpectedly firm grip upon those who wonder the splendid Botswana landscape. The cinematography is so rich that at times it risks the story depicted feeling like a shamelessly sugar-coated melodrama. However, in the end, when all of the elements that painstakingly-selected images present are considered, the sweetness of the story is just right. Never fake but always heartfelt is the overall interpretation of the perilously problematic journey of love between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. For it presents a bold but more importantly candid state of pure adoration between a prince from Botswana, a country that was once known as British Bechuanaland, and a white insurance clerk from South London. Thus, the nineteen-forties and fifties-set story justly sits within the realms of definitive love-centred movies that have previously graced the silver screen with their presentations, such as Gone with the Wind (1939), or Pretty Woman (1990).
The splendour of the cinematography would seem all but wasted, were it not for the remarkable performances from the glistening ensemble of actors who all appear to be well within and fully embracing the finest years of their respective film careers. While each player adopts a role that he or she has previously portrayed, at least to a certain extent, with another character in their filmography or television work heretofore, everyone nonetheless glides and glows in a touching dance with the camera, employing enough noteworthy intricacies in the presentation of their latest parts to warrant the assertion that they were all essentially born to play, or for whatever reason thrive on, those particular sorts of characters. David Oyelowo delivers his most wonderful performance to date as the charming prince, Seretse Khama. Drawing upon his tragically underrated and essentially ignored leading performance as Doctor Martin Luther King in Selma (2014), his minor but still impressive role as a pastor in The Help (2011), as well as his role as Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he won not too long after completing drama school, Oyelowo injects a controlled element of theatricality into his latest work upon the stage of cinema. His addresses to both crowds and to individual fellow players are expressed with so much conviction that one can effortlessly become lost in his speeches, as if they were monologues shared only between Oyelowo and the audiences observing him inside the movie theatres. One cannot help but surrender to the most curative of smiles in the wake of his joy, or indeed at least feel an overwhelming temptation to shed but one tear of sorrow in light of his agonizing pain. During his keynote speech at the LFF 2016 Black Star Symposium, Oyelowo stated that “when you’re playing one of these historical figures, the last thing you want to do its play an icon. That’s impossible. You have to play a human being.” Without question, Oyelowo has achieved just that, yet again but on an even more spectacular scale. He has brought to life fully-rounded historically-based induvial to life. He showcases the flaws and the remarkable traits of a human being who is at once clearly unique and then so relatable that audiences are able to pinpoint qualities that they can relate to and share with others, regardless of the various differences between their backgrounds. With the star of the picture consistently shining that luminously, in such a way that is never pretentious or forced, the rest of the cast raise their games to levels not far behind the central masterpiece.
Rosamund Pike, arguably the biggest name attached to A United Kingdom because of the clout earned as a result of her still fairly recent Oscar nomination for her shockingly excellent leading performance in Gone Girl (2014), provides a great act that showcases her versatility as an artist. Pike knowledgeably plays the sweet, strong heroine, Ruth Williams, who firmly decides to grasp the courage to love, so that she might walk alongside the man she adores whole-heartedly, even in the face of appalling resistance on all fronts. Audiences are compelled by Pike’s elegant accent, mannerisms and facial expressions, especially during moments of intensified emotion, to believe in every notion, significant or otherwise, which her dialogue reveals for witness exploration. Whether their time spent on screen amounts to very little or not, each member of the supporting cast is granted a pivotal degree of influence within the story upon the development of the two leads. Jack Davenport delivers an incredible performance as one of the principle antagonists. His representation of a declining British Empire clinging with ruthless tenacity to dreadful traditions is presented at times in pantomime-like fashion, which, rather than hindering his imposing presence onscreen and reducing it to a ridiculous joke, instead adds a striking amount of essential humour to the tale, rooted in the mockery of fading ideologies that have no place in a world that is clearly in desperate need of modernisation, greater diversity and, above all, tolerance. Additionally, through a part that feels reasonably similar to his role in The Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-Present), Davenport highlights yet again, as one of the best-spoken and eloquent actors working in Hollywood today, the urgent need for an audiobook about anything at all to be recorded using his alluringly attractive voice. On a brief side note, Davenport, thanks to industry veterans Jenny Beavan and Anushia Nieradzik, at one stage wears the coolest, most flamboyant movie costume of the year, creating a tirelessly amusing image that is difficult to disremember. Tom Felton portrays a supporting antagonist with superb maturity and authenticity, consequently earning his place within the movie business as a star that has moved on well beyond the role that made him: Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series (2001-2011). Albeit his latest part is another ostensibly villainous one, his believable older appearance and extraordinary acting illustrate that he deserves as many chances to shine in a space that is far removed from his supposedly career-defining role of the past, just like the space that Daniel Radcliffe has so often enjoyed recently.
Laura Carmichael plays a role of the seemingly plain sister of Ruth Williams; the part at first seems almost identical to her breakout performance from Downton Abbey (2010-2015), save for the aesthetics of the character that are demanded by the changing historical period from the early twentieth century post Second World War. However, Carmichael’s performance in A United Kingdom is no less magnetic as the frank but finally loyal and loving sibling who truly wants the best for her dearest sister and best friend. Similarly, Arnold Oceng rides the bountiful tides of his astounding performance from The Good Lie (2014) to a fairly brief but undeniably passionately-delivered part in A United Kingdom as Sereste’s energetic, fairly witty and very staunch friend, who, deep down, in spite of his apparently great fear of facing up to those cold-hearted forces of oppression currently in power, simply despairs at the mere thought of his dearest companion being hurt by brutal social customs and restrictions. Incidentally, Oceng discussed the similarities and the differences between working on a movie set in modern times versus a period drama at reasonable length during his red carpet appearance at the film’s Opening Night Gala at the LFF 2016. A United Kingdom was Oceng’s first experience with the latter setting of films. In short, what struck him the most was just how similar the sentiments explored within stories set in different places in time actually are. His enthusiastic and humble explanations illustrated just how much both he as an actor and audiences can learn from period pieces. Moreover, Oceng certainly brings a superb performance to the screen that warrants the credibility of his words, for even in this relatively small role, he performs with as much determination and poignancy as he has done for his much more prominent role as a Sudanese refugee in the aforementioned drama that stars Reese Witherspoon. Finally, while not one blotch spoils the stunning painting that is the visual marvel of A United Kingdom, one last mention must be made for Jessica Oyelowo. Having worked with her husband a number of previous occasions, which include her supporting roles in Captive (2015) and Nina (2016), she works with enviable professionalism and swan-like grace to bring a cold-hearted member of the British aristocracy to fruition. The resulting presentation inspires great anger from the audience due to her character’s entrenched imperialist attitude, while also encouraging audiences to at least ponder over the notion that she honestly believes that she is fundamentally right and good in clinging to her traditional values and standards, albeit such beliefs seem to be clearly racist, far from fair and deliberately held to the detriment of Seretse and other people of colour. The concept of an audience harshly judging particular characters from different historical settings was best summarised by discussions centred on The Revenant (2015). The movie’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, stated, “I don’t consider people who are racist bad people. I think they are just ignorant. By not having the knowledge or the consciousness or the awareness, they are irresponsible and they can bring a lot of pain.” Moreover the film’s wilderness advisor, Clay Landry, asserted that “the worst thing you can do looking at history is to judge people in historical settings on today’s values and interpretations. You’ve got to put your mind back there. You’ve got to understand the total picture and what their philosophies about life and religion everything else was.” Thus, each of the primary villains played by Davenport, Felton and Mrs Oyelowo, may in fact basically be, as Iñárritu might put it “a victim of his [or her] own culture.” All of the performances from A United Kingdom demonstrate that thorough background research and understanding has paid off in the pursuit of a sincere story about the complex obstacles that love can endure. However, the contributions of the screenwriter and the director become crucial on a scale beyond measure for ensuring that the core qualities of the romantic drama are not lost in the exploration of the complexities behind character motivations and major plot developments.
A United Kingdom sparkles principally due to the tender care of the director, Amma Asante, in combination with the finely-tuned script, scribed by Guy Hibbert. The concoction of talent results in a story that achieves a clever balance between highlighting the vast political spheres in play during the film’s specific historical period and an ultimate focus on the loves of various guises at work within the story. During the aforementioned LFF 2016 press conference for the movie, Asante stated, “nothing in this story should come without it passing through the prism of the couple’s love. So that the love is layered and there are different types of love but ensuring that everything comes through the prism of one of those loves.” In truth, the romantic love between Seretse and Ruth clearly and unsurprisingly enjoys the greatest amount of attention. However, the dialogue employed conveys a striking degree of intelligence, an envious amount of sensitivity and, most importantly, an enormous level of emotional depth. Such a glorious descent is apparent even with some key conflicts and resolutions of the story. Candidly, those key plot points have, in some comparable form, already been depicted in other romantic dramas. This extends to the point where the invigorating elixirs known for inspiring the life-hardened souls of audiences to burst into regenerative flames appear to have all but dried up upon the silver screen because similar if not greater emotional depths have been penetrated in other love stories prior to the this one. On the other hand, there is a uniquely touching tone achieved by Asante, underpinned by a graceful whirlwind between joy and despair, which grants A United Kingdom with a special kind of insightful freshness, through which ostensibly exhausted themes feel born anew.
An urge to reject the film surfaces just occasionally, during moments where the story feels as though it is determinedly advancing within safe artistic and political territories. For instance, there are clear similarities between A United Kingdom and Asante’s previous movie within the same genre entitled Belle (2013). Similar techniques are employed for linking the story to the source material by the time the closing credits begin, for instance. Furthermore, one wonders if Winston Churchill, whom many regard as a faultless icon of modern history, was frankly allowed to dodge a crippling blow to his saintly image, since the real-life events that inspired the movie did not make up his government’s finest years in power. Still, the film overcomes such rejection in the end because it really is a great story beautifully told. While praising a film out of even minor political motivations can melt artistic ethics away within mere seconds, within the grand scheme of the Western cinematic universe, or at last the British and American film industries, A United Kingdom is a symbol of wonders. Such marvels relate primarily to diversity within film. First off, Asante, representing one of the few black female major decision-makers of the movie business today, has come back fighting with her latest project. Her previous work on Belle was, for whatever reason, shunned by the major award societies, most notably the Oscars and the BAFTAs, in spite of winning honours from reputable but less prestigious organizations like the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Asante’s comeback picture of 2016 must be commended for representing the actions that so many only settle for talking about rather than performing themselves; so many film fans and professionals pretend that they desire change while in practice behaving as though they are honestly contented with remaining within their safe spaces, far away from any great risk to their lifestyles or careers. Rosamund Pike best summarised, in a manner that appeared far from rehearsed, one of the aims of the movie beyond entertainment, during the LFF 2016 press conference:
“Isn’t it true that a movie like this, when it’s looking for distribution and people start looking at how well it might fare, at the moment, it’s not compared with other love stories? It’s put in a bracket with 12 Years a Slave (2013) [and] with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013). [These films] bear no resemblance to [A United Kingdom] as a film. The goal would be for this just to be seen in the cannon of love stories.”
While David Oyelowo’s aforementioned keynote speech at the Black Star Symposium deserves an entire article solely dedicated to its significance, a few crucial segments relate perfectly to A United Kingdom and its importance both artistically and politically. Oyelowo declared, “I fought for Amma Asante to direct A United Kingdom because I am very cognitive of the fact that as it pertains to diversity, if you are not part of the solution, my friend, trust me, you are part of the problem.” Oyelowo could not have been clearer within theconstraints of life-defining political correctness when he stated, “this thing is only gonna happen, we are only gonna get to the point where I don’t have to give these talks, you don’t have to listen to these talks, we don’t have to keep on talking about diversity, if we actually start to do diversity. The only way that’s gonna happen is if the demographics of the decision-makers changes. I segued from being a cog in a wheel to a decision-maker.” Finally, his concluding statement identified Pathé, one of the companies behind A United Kingdom, as a role-model for other industry professionals to follow in the pursuit of great storytelling enhanced by equally great diversity both in the final cut of the movie and behind the scenes. Holding back tears, he declared that “they [Pathe] are doing diversity. I, as an individual, am doing diversity. Over to you.” The tragedy was that exactly the same plea had been made by Idris Elba in a speech to parliament on diversity in the media earlier this year in January. Speaking with just as much humour and tenderness as Oyelowo would do only months later, Elba stated, “today, I’m asking the tv and film industry to think outside of the box. In fact, just get out of the box.” Elba added shortly afterwards, “think about diversifying at the beginning of the creative process and not at the end.” Elba’s bold entreaties, Oyelowo’s brave implorations and the urgent cries of others who have endured an unjust status within cinema especially must be unheeded no longer. There may be other films released this year that better adhere to specific audience tastes but there will not be a better illustration of the treasures that can be crafted when diversity is given the spotlight it deserves. Fortunately, A United Kingdom successfully ventures beyond those turbulent shores and lands firmly upon the well-earned pedestal available to films and love stories in particular that are pure and superb in their own right. Love, effort and sincerity have united in a powerful story, which is based on fundamentally ineffable events from the history books and provides an undoubtedly worthy addition to the pinnacles of film that lie securely within the most respected cinematic archives.
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