When the London Film Festival chose this to open its 2016 schedule, it seems obvious that they were making a statement. Several of them, to be honest.
Earlier in the year, director Amma Asante was one of a number of film makers invited to become a member of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, following the criticisms levelled that the Oscars lacked racial diversity. A short time later, Asante’s film A United Kingdom was announced for LFF’s opening night, putting her in the position of being the first black British director to be given that honour. This selection also comes in a year in which the lack of female directors has been a regular talking point.
But do not assume for one moment that because Asante is a woman, this is purely a costume-clad story about the trials and tribulations of an inter-racial romance.
In fact, the romance is merely the starting point for a much bigger story, with major social, economic and political implications that even the people involved hadn’t foreseen. Amma Asante together with star and producer David Oyelowo (who has been nurturing this story for several years) have given us a remarkable insight into how the marriage of two people apparently threatened not only the political stability of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), but also of the British Empire, and is a much more interesting and intricate story than the trailer would have us believe.
Without too much heavy-handedness about the grander political machinations in the chambers of power, we learn that the marriage creates ripples beyond any of the protagonists’ imagination, and it is to the credit of the two main actors that we do not get lost in the diplomatic and back-stabbing but remain locked with the personal. Those who have seen Selma will know that Oyelowo can deliver rousing speeches with conviction, but here he also gets to be as politically cute and astute as the British civil servant overlords – played with unfortunate moustache-twirling dastardliness by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton. Rosamund Pike brings all her English rose loveliness to her role, a character who is challenged but not broken by the environment in which she suddenly finds herself an outsider.
There are one or two things in the plot which I found to be a little too convenient for the storyline, but as this is based on true events I can only assume that these were artistic choices made to move the storytelling on – and which I was prepared to overlook while watching. Truth be told, they probably ended up simplifying things a little too much, and I imagine that actual events were far more complex.
Amma Asante creates the contrast between rainy, smoggy London and dry dusty Bechuanaland in the palette choices, with much of London being presented at night, showing up the beautiful yellows of Africa in direct opposition.
I will admit that there were a couple of occasions where I might have got a speck of dust in my eye – not at the romantic story however, but at simple touches of human kindness when they were not expected.
Overall it’s a film that tells an interesting story in a charming and understatedly powerful way; I expect there is enough material to have created a mini-series in fact, as I suspect the surface has barely been scratched.
A version of this post also appeared at www.filmdispenser.com