In 2013, nearly ten years after her BAFTA-winning directorial debut “A Way Of Life,” British director Amma Asante returned with “Belle.” It was the kind of film ignored by much of the cinephile blogosphere, but proved to be a sleeper indie hit (outgrossing movies like “Foxcatcher,” “Whiplash” and “Snowpiercer”), and was well-liked by critics in the know, who found not a stodgy period piece, but a spry, deeply smart film that introduced issues of race and identity into a familiar Jane Austen-ish setting in a way that felt truly vital.
Three years on, she’s back, her profile suitably boosted (her latest has the prestigious opening slot at the BFI London Film Festival today after world premiering at TIFF last month), with “A United Kingdom,” a film that in some ways plays as a companion piece to “Belle.” It’s another period piece, and another story of love battling intolerance. And for the most part, it’s a fitting successor, building on the strengths of its predecessor, though not quite its equal.
We meet, in post-war London, two people: Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a law student from the Bechuanaland Protectorate, which will one day become Botswana, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a clerk at an insurance company. They meet at a dance, fall quickly in love and decide to marry, but there are immediate obstacles. For one, Seretse is black, and their interracial relationship is frowned upon socially, including by Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst)
For another, Seretse is also the King of Bechuanaland, set to shortly take the throne back from his uncle (Vusi Kunene), who’s been ruling as Regent until he completes his studies. News that Seretse is taking a white, British daughter (and one from a relatively low economic status at that) is met with hostility at home, but worse may be to come. Bechuanaland has been under the protection of Britain since South Africa threatened to invade in the 19th century. And the British government, represented by Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport, only failing to twirl his mustache because his character is clean-shaven) and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton), are desperate to placate their allies in South Africa, who have just introduced the policy of apartheid, making it very clear that they’ll do anything in their power to stop Seretse from ruling with Ruth by his side.
The film is based on a true story, a remarkable one at that, but to begin with, it feels that Asante and writer Guy Hibbert (“Eye In The Sky”) might have dropped the ball a bit. The first half-hour is a bit of a slog, quickly dumping a lot of reasonably clunky exposition, and racing through the courtship of Seretse and Ruth. We don’t get much opportunity to learn about either as a person, which means we don’t initially get much sense of their relationship beyond “we love each other,” and it starts to feel like a story in thrall to the facts, rather than one using them to its advantage.
Fortunately, the story soon opens up (quite literally: once it moves principally to Botswana, we get some glorious widescreen vistas rather than the somewhat claustrophobic London streets), and things improve significantly. Like “Belle,” it might look like it exists in the same sphere as Masterpiece Theatre, but the filmmaker has a real gift for getting into the political context of her stories while never neglecting the personal, and seeing the Khamas gradually win over his people, while still battling the British establishment, is gripping, rewarding and eventually moving.
And though the film doesn’t entirely get over its handicap of not really knowing either Seretse or Ruth as individuals, their coupling becomes particularly well-drawn, and Asante’s greatest asset comes with her two leads. Oyelowo’s never anything other than tremendous, and he continues that trend here. It’s a part that has a little in common with his previous best known role, as Martin Luther King in “Selma,” giving insight into a larger than life figure by showing the way he operates politically, but Oyelowo’s more vulnerable here, his heart visibly cut out of his chest when he’s forced to be apart from his wife.
Pike might be doing the best work of her career here as well. She’s rarely been as luminous as this on screen, but she really shines when showing the grit and determination that lies beneath Ruth. Without saying anything to the effect, it’s clear from her eyes what an outsider she feels when she first arrives in Botswana, but she’s just as fiercely intelligent, and just as capable of being an operator as her husband, and the hard-earned progress that she makes, and the fierce independence she always displays (up to the point of driving herself to the hospital) makes such an impression, and really makes them a screen pairing to root for.
Asante’s palpably growing as a visual filmmaker here too: a couple of things don’t work (the use of spinning newspapers to bridge time is presumably meant to evoke classic Hollywood melodrama, but it still feels a bit cheesy), but she does so much with her framing to build on or accentuate the story, and the film looks gorgeous throughout, whether with a misty look on 1940s London that’s remiscent of Terence Davies, or the glorious bright vistas of Botswana (DP Sam McCurdy does excellent work).
After a rough start, then, the film turns into something truly engaging and crowd-pleasing. Asante’s films, at least in this vein, aren’t ever going to be terribly fashionable, but she has a feel for this kind of film that few since Richard Attenborough have been able to match, but with a voice and perspective that adds so much more too. And at time when, both in the U.K. and the U.S., we’re so much more divided than ever, a film about the power of being united seems utterly valuable right now. [B]