Films like A United Kingdom have a very fine line to balance. They are required to juggle romance, and drama, as well as ensuring it captures audiences' hearts and mind while, in this case, stirring the historical backdrop and political landscape into the melting pot. It needs to be elegant and gritty, often in the same breath, well-acted and soaring. Amma Asante's new film ticks a lot of those boxes, but a lot of the good, well-intentioned work is let down by a few issues that prevent it from being the classic it so desperately strives to be.
Set in 1948, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the Prince of Bechuanaland, falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white British woman in London. When he must return to rule his country, their interracial relationship is put under a spotlight. With neither their families or the respective governments approving of their love, the must attempt to defy the boundaries and laws that would normally prevent them from falling in love. Under the pressure of having their every moment scrutinised, all while dealing with family issues and consequences, it shows the importance of fighting for freedom and allowing love to blossom, no what the skin colour or differences, uniting rather than segregating. Oyelowo and Pike carry the true life story on their shoulders, under the direction of Amma Asante who crafts this generally powerful if uninspiring picture.
The lightning fast chemistry between David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is obvious from the first moment and the story wastes no time in building their characters arc or - perhaps more important - their two characters as one solid unit. Giving audiences something to root for instantly, practically from the word go as the film wastes no time in introducing them to us, and each other, and encourages our full investment in the love story that will proceed to play out. Oyelowo's character demonstrates a level of sweetness and humility despite his regality, while Pike - as with her sensational performance in Gone Girl - restricts her performances, never pushing her performance into melodramatic territory, as the script sometimes too forceful tries to make her do. It feels very bizarre to compare such vividly different character, especially Ruth in comparison with that of the psychopathic 'Amazing Amy' of which she was almost catapulted to stardom with, but it shows how masterful Pike is at developing a character over a film's entire runtime, rather than playing her card too early. Their partnership, almost a new character in itself, resonate so well because of the similarities in the fight they face with freedom, that has been seen all too much in 2016. In that way, A United Kingdom is smartly cathartic in its display of its powerful themes.
And those themes are beautifully considered under Asante's direction. It is clear that she wonderfully crafts the picture with care and consideration throughout, truly dedicated in conveying the true life story to audiences with a real heart. In her excellent hands, she cleverly subverts some expectations in the otherwise predictable script (more on that later...), empowering the piece to glide along and unfold with a beauty and charm, resulting in a throughly absorbing drama. It features some stunning cinematography and visual decisions such as contrasting the London-set and Bechuanaland-set scenes in slightly different colour, tones and shades to demonstrate their differences - including the stunning final scene which, while formulaic, still pulls on the heart strings - which works hand in hand with Asante's main success of this piece is folding into the story the politics of the situation and the drive of co-orporations or governments overpowering individuals and their decisions. Asante takes a firm stand in highlighting the issues experienced by the lovers and themes that we can still recognise today - building an incredibly accessible picture for contemporary audiences, subtly delivering the themes that are not simply confined to the era that picture is set in. It's a shame that the hard work of the three key players is brought down by a lazy, uneven script.
Struggling with the idea of subtly, unlike Asante, the scriptwriters feel the need to spell everything out a little too disconcertingly, as if they cannot trust the audience in figuring things out by their own accord. Trust me when I tell you that it is a real shame, as everything feels very on the nose and delivered with dotted i's and crossed t's. It, on more than a few occasions, stirs up a rather saccharine and excessively sweet tone that distracts from the harsh reality the pair are facing with some awkward lines that almost always feel like they have been manufactured for dramatic effect, rather than occurring naturally in speech; that may sound like a pedantic issue to raise, but it truly affects the realism and the degree in which one is engrossed in the film, causing it to stick out like a sore thumb. Another point to raise is that while Oyelowo and Pike are terrific in their respective roles, the supporting cast are constantly overshadowed, either turning their performances to overt-melodrama and pantomime villainy (Jack Davenport) or simply woefully miscast despite best efforts (Tom Felton). None of these supporting characters are helped by the generally by-the-numbers narrative that struggles to build them beyond basic character traits.
It is difficult to criticise a film that is so well-intentioned and truly crafted with care and thought for its subject manner, with two lead performers that give it their all and make the film worthwhile, all under the leadership of a terrific director in Amma Asante. But not in the slightest does the blame lie at their door, instead by that of those responsible for the script and screen adapters, as well as the film's editing (which is jarring on a couple of occasions, as if large chunks have been pulled at the last minute). Still, it is worth the watch if only to educate and enlighten yourself on the true life story, as well as to appreciate the stunning performances from the reliable Oyelowo and Pike.
Summary: A United Kingdom succeeds on the basis of its passionate and dedicated performances from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, under stirring direction from Amma Asante, but the uneven and often awkward script manufactures a saccharine and by-the-numbers love story.
Highlight: The two terrific lead performances.