Thursday 24 November 2016

Stronger together: "A United Kingdom"

The most subversive aspect of new British period drama A United Kingdom - possibly the most ironic-seeming title to pass into cinemas in the autumn of 2016 - is that the kingdom that title refers to isn't, as you might have expected, the United Kingdom. (So much for taking our country back.) But we'll get to that in due course. For starters, this is Amma Asante - the director who had such success with 2013's Belle - setting out a true-life romance between two youngsters making their way in post-WW2 London. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) is a secretary, pinned down in her mam and dad's cramped place within a suburbia set to run like clockwork; Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) the visiting law student she crosses paths with at a thoroughly ordinary missionary dance. The pair bond over a shared love of jazz, although not as the English play it, and make plans to see one another again. Seretse, however, has a surprise for Ruth: upon taking his leave, he reveals that he is, in fact, the heir to the throne of what was Bechuanaland (the British protectorate soon to be renamed Botswana), and must soon return home to rule. There have probably been bigger bombshells dropped at the end of a first date, but not many. A few weeks later, he's asking for Ruth's hand in marriage - and for her to become queen of a country she'd struggle to find on the map.

In truth, this courtship plays as just a little too whirlwind on screen, allowing Pike and Oyelowo scant time to generate the requisite chemistry and heat: from the off, we sense Asante - as she did in Belle - pushing for the kind of 12A-rated costume drama that can be shipped to large audiences in multiplexes, but I think we needed to feel more of the pair's growing connection, rather than simply being led to see them as two figures being nudged hastily together in order to initiate crisis. The waves of condemnation the couple faced in the run-up to marriage, however, could not be more apparent, or better dramatised. Ruth's fusty old pa (Nicholas Lyndhurst, of all people) sees his pipe plummeting from his dropped jaw and promptly banishes his daughter from his sight; British diplomat Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport, oozing condescension) turns up at Ruth's workplace to harrumph "a chief cannot simply come to London and pluck a girl from the typing pool", then sets about meddling on the grounds this interracial coupling threatens to undermine the Government's endorsement of South Africa's new apartheid legislation.

Matters get no easier once Seretse has brought his wife home: his uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), the incumbent ruler, commands him to think again about his choice of bride, while his sisters insist that this pampered white child of Empire is by no means the queen they and their country have long been looking for. Gradually, Asante and her screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) start to frame a question that seems more than ever relevant: how do you win over people who have united against you, and rebut petty-mindedness, ignorance and outright xenophobia? In this, A United Kingdom will most likely be preaching to the converted. It's after that broader-minded Picturehouse crowd who wouldn't for a moment have entertained notions of voting for Brexit or Trump, and be seen to endorse the fringe values that come with those causes; who will understandably blanch at Ruth's discovery of a "Niggers Out" sign pinned to the door of Seretse's London residence, and titter when prat-in-chief Canning sets out to a meeting with the natives wearing his full colonial plumage. The quiet triumph of the film is that it still bothers to make a case - one just strong enough to challenge prejudices, while firming up even the limpest of liberal convictions.

Asante's leads could in themselves win a lot of arguments. If that first act skimps on the initial attraction - possibly to spare us the undignified sight of actors in their late thirties impersonating skylarking college grads - the director and her performers have spotted how Ruth and Seretse were forced to grow up, and grew even closer together, as they were buffeted on all sides. Oyelowo again demonstrates the considerable oratorical skill first showcased in last year's Selma - at several points, he's both an actor addressing his audience and a regent-elect addressing his subjects, appealing to everyone's better hearts and minds - but he's also effective in suggesting Seretse's speechlessness when faced with the sublimated racism of the powers-that-be: Asante frames one piercing shot of the actor huddled on a rainsoaked kerb just after Seretse's been summoned to London to be told that he's being sent into exile. (Whitehall has never looked so white, which is saying something.) Alongside him, an unusually rattled Pike makes notable play from Ruth's hesitant attempts to fit in - like the tentative royal wave she rehearses in a bathroom mirror, a moment that truly transports us through the looking glass. (Given the present fuss about Prince Harry's lovelife, you wonder what scandal would have erupted in the pages of the Mail had Princess Margaret taken up with, say, Paul Robeson - or, worse, a mere commoner.)

The whole has many of the trappings of Sunday night telly, and some of the same flaws as Belle, notably a certain wobbliness in the casting of supporting actors. (While it's possible Lyndhurst is here for Goodnight Sweetheart vibes, for most British viewers, he will eternally be Rodney Trotter.) Yet Asante's becoming a greatly more capable and confident filmmaker with each new project. She takes to African location shooting like a duck to water, and arms herself with a real ally in Hibbert's accessible yet learned writing: from the midpoint onwards, A United Kingdom develops into an involving tactical game, as the lovers strive to negotiate around this stalemate and past those functionaries who would divide them up as they had done so many countries in a bid to maintain the status quo. You emerge with a real sense of the immense bravery and fortitude of this couple, who didn't just go out on a limb by falling for one another in the year 1947, but by doing so on a stage that made them a clear target for all manner of discontent. What Asante describes so stirringly here isn't only a love story, but an international incident - which makes it all the more astonishing and chastening that this particular episode had all but disappeared from history.

A United Kingdom opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow. 

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