Tuesday 8 November 2016

Film Review: A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom is a period biopic from director Amma Asante that follows a political upheaval in Botswana following the banishment of their King and his Caucasian wife by the British Empire in the 1950's.

Following the end of the Second World War, Sereste Khama (David Oyelowo), the future king of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a quaint Englishwoman, whilst studying law in London. Facing disapproval and discrimination from their family and friends, the two lovers elope to Sereste's homeland where they face further opposition from his peers and tribal elders.

Their romance makes headlines across the Commonwealth and threatens to cause a political nightmare for the local British colonial government officials, among them Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton). Facing banishment and impeachment, King Sereste pushes forward with his vision for lasting societal change - however far-fetched it may seem at the time.

Asante, who also directed Belle, beautifully captures a defiant and enduring love story while also offering a detailed examination of a complex and painful chapter in Africa and Britain's joint colonial history. Her film is able to work on both an intimate, personal level whilst also exploring the intricate political relationship between Britain and her colonies following the Second World War. A United Kingdom is a soulful and spirited film that ensures that one element doesn't outweigh the other.

Much of this success rests of the shoulders of its leading man, David Oyelowo. Oyelowo gives an empathic performance that wrings an often melodramatic narrative for all emotional heft he can muster. It's a powerful performance that is up there with his excellent portrayal of another powerful historical figure, Martin Luther King Jnr, in Selma last year.

Pike is great too but is somewhat overshadowed by her co-star. They share a great chemistry when they're together, but when the narrative drives a wedge between the two it's Oyelowo who soars as the figurehead being beaten into submission by a far-flung government clinging to its heritage. Pike plays her part in a more whimsical and wide-eyed manner, which only suits the story some of the time.

The pacing does dip slightly towards the end, the film sucummbing to the usual biopic pratfalls. However, a series of twists and a wry sense of humour sprinkled throughout are able to hold our gaze until the credits roll and the characters look towards a more hopeful future.

The Verdict: 7.5/10

A shining performance from Oyelowo and some sweet chemisty at the forefront make Asante's latest period drama a worthwhile and educational yarn that deals in romance and politics in equal measure. Some pacing issues aren't enough to stymie this spirited historical piece.

A United Kingdom is currently screening at Palace Cinemas for the 2016 BBC First British Film Festival. It opens across Australia on December 26th.

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