A United Kingdom (2016)

Photo courtesy of: BBC Films

“Four legs good, two legs bad.” The divisive maxim of revolutionary pig Snowball in George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm with “four legs” being the establishment, us; and “two legs” the enemy, them. Fast forward a couple of years to post-war Britain and the onset of apartheid in South Africa – the background to Grange Hill actress-turned-director Amma Asante‘s adaptation of Susan William’s award-winning non-fiction book Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and his Nation – and “good” is the white ruling class at Westminster and within the all-Afrikaner cabinet of The National Party. Whereas “bad” is any person or party who are perceived to threaten their iron rule. Hence discriminatory signs such as “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” and disparaging calls of “coon” and “monkey” which feature at the start of Guy Hibbert’s screenplay.

The person to whom they were levelled at being Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of the Bamangwato tribe in Bechuanaland (an African state under the protection of the UK which later became Botswana) whose controversial marriage to a white “salesman’s daughter” Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) sparked outrage amongst the white ruling classes in neighbouring South Africa and within the corridors of Westminster on account of the fact that it was “a flagrant disregard for the current political climate”. The discovery of diamonds under the tribespeople’s feet and Sereste’s threats to claim the riches for his country, might have had something to do with it as well, mind you.

Under immense pressure from the British establishment (as represented by the sneering double act of Jack Davenport and Tom Felton as fictional civil servants Sir Alistair Canning and Rufus Lancaster respectively) and against the wishes of his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), Seretse went ahead with his marriage to Ruth. But the fall-out was immense, both politically and personally: he was separated from his wife and newborn child; estranged from his uncle and extended family; and exiled from his country, initially for five years, later extended to in perpetuity. History records that they managed to win over the hearts and minds of their countrymen and allies (Seretse became the first president of an independent Botswana), and it is their initial battle to do so which forms the basis of the film’s dramatic arc.

Unfortunately, politics plays second fiddle to romance. Which is a major problem given the fact that their love-at-first-sight relationship and “No sex please, we’re British” courtship is done and dusted with as much grace and speed as a jackhammer breaking through concrete. In order to root for and care about the characters we have to believe in “the clay that binds” (the Setswana translation of Sereste’s name). Unfortunately, little time is invested in us doing so. And no amount of dreamy cinematography and swelling strings can convince us otherwise. Other major problems include a serious lack of pace and a dearth of dramatic tension: given what’s at stake, it all passes by like the hissing of summer lawns.  And the portrayal of Davenport and Felton’s characters as one-dimensional Dastardly and Muttley villains hardly helps the cause.

The overlooked “triumph” of Seretse Khama’s relationship with Ruth Williams and how it impacted on his nation is one worthy of telling, but as Frank Carson would agree “it’s the way you tell ’em” that’s important. In this regard, A United Kingdom comes apart.

Video courtesy of: Pathe UK

A United Kingdom (2016)
A United Kingdom poster Rating: 6.3/10 (239 votes)
Director: Amma Asante
Writer: Guy Hibbert (screenplay)
Stars: Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, David Oyelowo
Runtime: 111 min
Rated: N/A
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Released: 17 Feb 2017
Plot: Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana causes an international stir when he marries a white woman from London in the late 1940s.
Peter Callaghan

Peter Callaghan

Writer at reviewsphere
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Dramatic Studies graduate, actor, writer and drama workshop leader. As well as a performance poet and corporate roleplayer.
Peter Callaghan

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