Director Amma Asante (Belle), with the prodigious support of stars David Oyelowo (Selma) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), has created something rare with her adaptation of author Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar — namely, an uplifting film dealing with a true story of overcoming racism that doesn’t waste any time or energy condescending its audience. Like Hidden Figures, Asante’s A United Kingdom doesn’t abandon the rose-colored glasses entirely, but it presents its characters as being slightly more nuanced and well-rounded than it might’ve and still manages to convey its message of hope and determination without digressing into excessive saccharinity. It’s a powerful story competently told, and while it’s not likely to be as successful as Figures, it does deserve a watch.
Based on a true story, Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, an African studying in London who falls in love with typist Ruth Williams (Pike). Their relationship would be problematic enough given the temporal setting of the late 1940s, but Khama is also heir apparent to the throne of Bechuanaland (which would become Botswana) — complicating matters significantly. Not only is Ruth disowned by her father for marrying outside of her race, but the acting regent of Bechuanaland, and seemingly the entire English government, try to prevent the couple’s union. Things only get more complicated from there, as the advent of Apartheid in neighboring South Africa makes Khama’s impoverished nation strategically significant to the Brits, not to mention the untapped mineral wealth hiding beneath the sub-Saharan soil.
Oyelowo and Pike deliver rousing performances, imbuing the Khamas with a dignity and emotional depth that isn’t always given the room it needs to be fully explored. Oyelowo displays a range of relatability that humanizes his conflicted monarch while still maintaining a regal air, while Pike covers a great deal of ground between fish-out-of-water vulnerability when confronted a chilly reception from the people she’s expected to rule and the resiliency that defines the latter half of her character arc. The villainous British colonial governors are a bit too broad to be seen as anything other than bogeymen, but this does little to diminish the point the film’s trying to make.
Perhaps my only real complaint with A United Kingdom is that its script is efficiently paced to a fault, occasionally neglecting opportunities for psychological exploration in favor of hitting requisite historical events. Courtesy of screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky), A United Kingdom fits three hours worth of movie into 111 minutes, and while it never quite feels overstuffed, it does have a tendency to fly past important character beats without pausing long enough for them to fully resonate. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as the film deftly avoids what could have been a problematic second-act slump in its current form, but would likely have dragged significantly had it been more self-indulgent.
As it stands, Asante et al. have delivered a very good film that falls just short of being great — but given the timeliness of the story’s message and the dexterity with which its complicated politics are navigated, it doesn’t have to be perfect to get the job done. I find something reassuring about the emerging trend of films trying to address current racial tensions through an historical lens, especially when those films are as thoughtful and well-intentioned as A United Kingdom. Those with only a passing familiarity with this chapter in the unfortunate annals of British colonialism will find a lot to ponder here, and those looking for little more than a rousing romance will be similarly rewarded. Rated PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality. Now Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.