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A United Kingdom

How is it possible to create anything new or make any kind of novel artistic statement when it seems like everything’s been done and said before? The answer, to paraphrase a bit of writing wisdom I picked up from somewhere forgotten, is that everything HAS been done and said before… but no one was listening the first time, so do it anyway. I’m very forcibly reminded of that, in the face of the umpteen-billion movies released in recent years that pertain to discrimination. But so long as racism and sexism are still hugely important issues in urgent need of addressing, I suppose we should keep the films about them coming.

This time, it’s A United Kingdom, a biopic that culminates in the founding of Botswana. But I’m already getting ahead of myself — Botswana wasn’t founded as an independent democratic nation until 1966. Our story begins in 1947, when it was still the country of Bechuanaland, a protectorate under the British Crown. A southern African nation roughly the size of France, with a population of 121 thousand, and easily one of the poorest nations on Earth.

Our female lead is Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an ordinary typist going about her life in London. She randomly meets our male lead (Seretse Khama, played by producer David Oyelowo), who’s studying abroad in London. The two meet, fall immediately in love, and agree to get married before Seretse goes back home to Bechuanaland.

The catch? He’s the heir to Bechuanaland. All of it. His uncle has been serving as regent while waiting for Seretse to grow up, get his education, and claim the throne of his forefathers.

And Seretse returns home with a white wife after spending his most fertile years in London. And for some reason, everyone’s surprised. Like nobody even considered the possibility that this might happen.

Let’s try to unpack the clusterfuck caused by this marriage. First of all, this is the 1940s, and racism is very much alive and well. Ruth is disowned by her family, she’s branded a whore and a traitor, and that’s not even getting started on all the racist invectives thrown at her new husband.

Racism is especially prominent in South Africa, where a little thing called Apartheid is starting to take shape. More to the point, South Africa has vast resources to help rebuild England’s postwar economy, and they occupy a key strategic position that could be useful in the nascent Cold War. So naturally, England is paranoid about upsetting South Africa, especially by allowing an interracial marriage by the leader of their protectorate in Bechuanaland. Which is right next door to South Africa, by the way.

So it is that throughout the entire picture, the bureaucrats in London do their damnedest to either depose Seretse or keep him out of his country entirely. And in a shocking turn of events, they’re given a surprising amount of leverage from Seretse’s own uncle, the outgoing regent. See, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) is pissed off that his nephew went and married a foreign white woman who doesn’t know the first thing about their nation, their community, or how to hold the most basic ornamental position in government. And seriously, if you were a citizen of this dirt-poor country in which everybody knew everybody else, how do you think this would look? So to spite his nephew, protect his people, and stay on the good side of the white colonial powers who are technically in charge, Tshekedi agrees to give whatever leverage he can to impede his nephew’s reign.

But then a funny thing happens.

See, it turns out that there are a lot of people in the world who — get this, I’m sure it’s going to blow your mind — don’t like Apartheid. This is especially true of the black people in Africa who somehow take offense to the idea of being treated as second-class citizens. England is absolutely right that this royal interracial marriage is an irrefutable iron-clad statement that Apartheid will spread no further on Seretse’s watch, and while the ruling powers of South Africa may not like it, the citizens of Bechuanaland love it.

Moreover, if the people of Bechuanaland don’t like it when some random white woman marries their king, they REALLY don’t like it when white bureaucrats a world away make unilateral decisions about how things are going to be. It’s all well and good when the citizens get the chance to depose their own king, but when the bigwigs in London try to make that same decision to serve their own interests, there’s anarchy in the streets. Furthermore, these same people of Bechuanaland pay their taxes and all due respect to the British Crown, and they’re still the poorest nation on Earth. So it’s not like London had a lot of goodwill with these people to begin with.

Elsewhere in the world, the decision to impede Seretse at every turn is just as unpopular. Seems that a lot of people in Britain hate the idea of injustice committed in their name, and they don’t like the thought of Britain throwing this African nation into chaos after declaring it a protectorate. Everybody hates an incompetent and dishonest politician, after all. Plus, there are a lot of anti-racists in Britain and abroad (including their good buddies, the Americans) who are disgusted that a married couple should have to be put through so much because it was done between races.

To sum it all up, this is a huge international shitstorm with a lot of different factors at play. And one of the film’s greatest strengths is in making it clear just how impossibly huge the stakes are. Each individual word and action could potentially change the entire world, and everything is given the appropriate weight.

A huge part of that is of course in the central romance. Of course David Oyelowo is fantastic as the crown prince and king of Bechuanaland — after making Martin Luther King Jr. his trademark role, this is hardly much of a sea change. As for Ruth, I’m tempted to think that the role was meant for a younger actress, but Rosamund Pike is otherwise so perfectly cast that I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role. She’s absolutely radiant on her own merit, her chemistry with Oyelowo sizzling hot, and it’s so frustratingly rare to see Pike at her full potential that I’ll take what I can get.

Plus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this film actually shows our lead interracial couple consummating their marriage. It’s a very tame sex scene, to be clear — safely on the low end of PG-13. Even so, it was pretty bold of the filmmakers to take that step. I don’t even think Loving went so far.

All of that said, this is a story with A LOT of moving pieces, compressed into a mere two hours. And it shows. Not that I’m suggesting that the film should’ve been much longer, as a romantic drama can only take so much political bickering, and the balance between the two in this film is quite nicely managed.

Still, there’s no taking away from how rushed the story has to be by design. There’s so much to get to that our lead couple have to go from strangers to spouses (an entire movie’s worth of material unto itself) within the first thirty minutes. How can that be accomplished? Montages. And the actors’ chemistry, to be sure, but montages are a huge factor. And they will be throughout the rest of the film as well.

All throughout the picture, there are storylines riddled with gaps. While we do learn enough to fill in some necessary blanks for ourselves, it’s still glaringly obvious where a lot of stuff happened that the film didn’t have time to show. Thus we get the start and the finish of some subplot without much in the way of how we got from one to the other. And we also get about a dozen storylines that are abruptly dropped and never mentioned again until they’re picked back up just as quickly.

Another side effect is the roster of paper-thin characters who exist primarily to move the plot along, and only barely get the merest possible development because there’s simply no time. Moreover, because the characters have to convey so much in so little time, the order of the day is melodrama. The most glaringly obvious examples are Ruth’s family — the parents are cookie-cutter racists with a pathetically predictable arc, and Ruth’s sister does so little she’s barely even worth mentioning.

Luckily, not all of the “plot device” characters are duds. Vusi Kunene gets very little screen time, but he has more than enough charisma to sell the character as a legitimate threat to Seretse’s reign. We’ve also got Terry Pheto and Abena Ayivor, both actresses with more than enough screen presence to make something powerful out of their flimsy characters and scarce runtime.

On the other end of the spectrum are Tom Felton and Jack Davenport, two among countless white actors who brought shame and gastrointestinal injuries upon themselves playing haughty white racists with sticks up their asses. A piece of string would have more dimension than these characters. That said, while these characters can always be depended upon to be racist assholes to the bitter end, they do at least keep up a flimsy facade of bureaucracy and politics to justify their dumbfuckery. Ever since Hidden Figures, I’ve become much more partial to racist stereotypes who say “Don’t blame me! It’s the system that’s racist, not me!” I find that so much more relevant.

(Side note: Keep an eye out for Jessica Oyelowo, the lovely wife of David Oyelowo, who appears as the wife to Davenport’s character. Because aside from the actress’ real-life marriage to the lead actor, there’s seriously nothing else to say about her or her character. Put the whole cast in a lineup and I couldn’t pick her out if I tried.)

A United Kingdom is hardly perfect. The film scrambles to cover such a massive story in so little time, the vast majority of characters are barely more than pencil sketches on napkins, and the performances are dripping with melodrama from start to finish. Yet the film works because the core romance is beautifully effective, powered by two exceptional performers who’ve superbly come into their own over the past few years. Perhaps more importantly, in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the subplots smashed in together, the movie succeeds at selling the astronomical stakes at play. This feels like a huge and important story that needed to be told, with a lot of sociopolitical themes that are relevant to today’s audiences.

I’m altogether glad that I didn’t rush out and see this at the first opportunity, but I would absolutely give it a strong second-run or home video recommendation.

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