It’s easy to see why Amma Asante’s follow-up to 2014’s Belle (watch it on Netflix, it’s terrific) would be chosen to open the 60th London Film Festival. Forgetting the fact that the choice is history in the making – Asante is the first woman of colour to open the festival in its sixty-years – the film itself, entitled A United Kingdom, is a total crowd-pleaser which hits all the right emotions. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and it will make you swoon.
A long-term passion project of David Oyelowo, who produces as well as stars in the film, it tells the remarkable true story of the relationship between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. A sweeping love story, the couple meet in 1947 London and instantly fall for each other. Asante, fully embracing the task of condensing their history into under two-hours worth of film, splendidly captures the excitement and thrill of first love through some kinetic editing and stunning cinematography – scenes set on the foggy streets of nighttime London feel straight out of a painting or a black and white film from the 1940’s.
It’s after a year of courtship – about fifteen-minutes into the film – that we discover Seretse is in fact a Prince of Bechuanaland in South Africa, and that he has been called back home by his Uncle to take on the kingly duties of his people. What sounds like a fairytale turns out to be far from it, however, when their interracial marriage causes a ripple effect like no other; one which becomes entwined in the apartheid politics of South Africa and the British Empire.
Much like Belle, the director’s latest is incredibly intelligent in the way that it tells, what is at its core, a political story. Beautifully packaged as an old-fashioned romance, there’s plenty to attract a mass audience to the film, but you still can’t help but get the distinctive feeling that Asante’s is more interested in the effect the central romance had on the world, as opposed to the romance itself.
Going further than depicting the terrible racism of the time – both characters are subject to the racial intolerance and fears of each country – the film’s second half has a particular focus on the complicated ramifications of the Khama and Williams’ marriage, playing out more like a political thriller/drama than anything else. And it’s in these moments in which A United Kingdom goes from a very likeable, traditional picture, to a completely compelling and fascinating piece of work.
It’s quite clearly an important story to tell, not just because of the fact that is little known across the world, but because its messages about acceptance are still just as relevant today as they were back in the 1940’s. Amma Asante, who continues to grow and find her voice with this accomplished work, manages to do the story great service, largely managing to balance the romance, humour and politics with all the skill of a master plate-spinner.
With two utterly charming performances – Oyelowo gets the powerful big speeches, but it’s still Rosamund Pike who steals the show with a clever and subtle turn as Williams – wonderful cinematography and a screenplay from Guy Hibbert which is full of warmth and intrigue, A United Kingdom is an efficient and simply lovely winter treat at the cinema; one which could and should be seen by the entire family.
A United Kingdom is released in UK cinemas on November 25th.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com