Hmm. An interracial Romeo and Juliet story set in the 1940’s. This should be interesting. I enjoy a good Romeo and Juliet story. So, yeah, hit me with it. Alright, so there’s a little more than that. An English white woman, daughter in a powerful family falls in love with a black man, who is a prince of Botswana, which causes an international crisis of sorts. The details escape me, obviously.
Well, lets take a look at the cast. Playing our proverbial Juliet is Rosamund Pike. While I am mostly indifferent to her, I acknowledge that she has talent up the wazoo. Want proof? Look no further than GONE GIRL (2014), her magnum opus as of now. But she’s usually been good in anything she’s been in, such as THE WORLD’S END (2013) and JACK REACHER (2012). I suspect that she’ll be fine here. Now for our proverbial Romeo, David Oyelowo. This guy, I’m pretty excited for. I guess any time he plays an important black man, it just fits. I’m looking at you, SELMA (2014). But he is a truly great actor in QUEEN OF KATWE (2016) and is pretty entertaining in JACK REACHER. Hey hey, something of a reunion between the two! In support, we have Jack Davenport (KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE , the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and TV show THE GOOD WIFE), Tom Felton (RISEN , RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES , and the Harry Potter franchise), and Oyelowo’s real life wife, Jessica Oyelowo (CAPTIVE , ALICE IN WONDERLAND , and SLEEPY HOLLOW ).
Now for behind the scenes. Directing is Amma Asante, known for BELLE (2013) and A WAY OF LIFE (2004). Penning the screenplay is Guy Hibbert, known for EYE IN THE SKY (2016) and FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN (2009). Composing the music is Patrick Doyle, known for CINDERELLA (2015), BRAVE (2012), and THOR (2011). Finally, the cinematographer is Sam McCurdy, known for KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM (2013), DREAD (2009), and DOOMSDAY (2008).
Early ratings make it pretty promising. IMDb has it at a comfortable 6.6/10 (as of 2/7/2017) and RottenTomatoes has it as an impressive 86%, certified fresh (as of 2/7/2017), so I think I’ll be in good hands. I’m expecting some good performances and hopefully some good writing. I’m looking forward to this.
This is my honest opinion of: A UNITED KINGDOM
Set in the late 1940’s. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) is a British woman who meets a dashing African from Bechuanaland named Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), educated to become a lawyer and the two hit it off. However, their relationship is met with immediate scrutiny due to racial tension in London. But the two don’t care and continue to see each other, even when Seretse admits to her that he is the Prince of Bachuanaland and that he is about to inherit the land. Before he takes off, however, he proposes to Ruth and she says yes. This causes problems. Ruth’s parents kick her out and Seretse’s uncle refuses to accept Ruth as their people’s new ruler. Though the people are convinced by his impassioned speech that he sincerely loves his wife and that they will rule dutifully, more political unrest rises between Bechuanaland and England over this issue and Seretse is eventually banished from his home as he and Ruth find a way to bring him back home.
Ehh, I have some problems with this movie. By no means bad, but… yeah, I’ll need to explain.
First of all, I was joking when I said that this movie was basically interracial Romeo and Juliet. The movie wasn’t joking. For the first third, maybe even half, of the movie, it is full on Romeo and Juliet. How do I mean? For example, in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo is introduced with a broken heart because his relationship with… Rosaline, was it?, ended. In order to cheer him up, Mercutio and Benvolio take him to the Capulet masked party, which is where he meets Juliet. How does this film introduce Ruth? She just ended a relationship with another guy and her sister takes her to a party, where she meets Seretse.
The similarities don’t end there. They almost immediately fall in love and we’re never privy to more than a few dates with them, so the eventual marriage proposal feels like they’ve been dating for less than a month, thanks in large part to this movie’s inept ability to show passage of time. The father is a jack-ass and immediately hates him without ever meeting him – a la Lord Capulet. The sister is understanding and kind, and accepting of Seretse – a la Nurse, it gets pretty heavy handed.
I suppose it’s important to note a little something-something. Having done little more than a Wikipedia search, it seems like Ruth and Seretse dated for about a year before getting hitched. Despite this, I stand by that this is not made clear in the movie and looks like they dated for a month, or less.
“In June 1947, Khama met Ruth Williams, an English clerk at Lloyd’s of London, and after a year of courtship, married her.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seretse_Khama
Thankfully, that distraction ends around the time when the two travel to Bechuanaland, but the problems of the overall movie don’t really go away. I feel like that this movie was trying to be a grand total of three films: Ruth and Seretse striking up a relationship to eventually get married, convincing the people that the two of them will be fine leaders for them all, and Seretse’s exile and eventual reunion with his family as well as the complete overhaul of Bechuanaland’s political system. All three of these stories make it a pretty complex movie, hence why my summary may feel a little disjointed.
Believe it or not, we spend maybe a grand total of fifteen, certainly less than twenty minutes on Ruth and Seretse’s relationship. It’s completely glanced over so the story can quickly get to the political stuff. Because of this, it’s never developed properly. By meaning, they strike up their relationship, but for how important a figure Seretse is to his people, he had to have known what marrying Ruth would have done to his people and the political ramifications that it would bring. So without that connection on what exactly makes their relationship so damn powerful to merit putting these people through these problems, it just looks like Seretse is doing all this for surprisingly selfish reasons. I know Pike is a gorgeous woman, guys, but gorgeous shouldn’t be a good enough reason to put an entire group of people through a political shit storm. I know it’s hard for us men to do sometimes, but lets take our penises out of the equation and really think about shit for once and come up with better reasons other than “dat ass.” Having a more developed relationship between the leads would have solved this problem. Clever writing would have only added about five minutes to the run time. That’s not very noticeable, and it would have been necessary to the story.
To the film’s credit, it does sort of pick up here. Usually grand epic speeches can be pretty hokey and end up backfiring due to awkward writing and relying on tons of clichéd lines. However, the one by Seretse was pretty heartfelt when he’s talking to his people. Sweet, but honest. I couldn’t necessarily quote it, but I remember not being bored by it. And it’s also kind of refreshing to see that it doesn’t drift into too many tropes that I was half predicting. Like, the people of Bechuanaland accept Seretse’s leadership, but they still give Ruth dirty looks, despite her best efforts to make peace. No one retaliates against either of her or Seretse, outside of the uncle getting butt-hurt and moving to a new area.
Although, maybe this doesn’t always work either. There’s this scene where Ruth simply parks in front of a building for groceries, but she’s met with the glaring eyes of some unhappy locals, including Seretse’s sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto). But for whatever reason, she takes a small amount of pity on Ruth, escorts her in the building and sternly tells the saleswoman to sell Ruth something, who was pretty apathetic toward her. While a sweet enough scene, I suppose, it comes out of nowhere. Earlier, when the two women first met, Naledi was very abrasive toward Ruth and right to her face told her to leave him. A little mean-spirited, but you get her reasons why as a native of the land. But, like I said, there was never a scene where Ruth made her change her way of thinking about her. It happens because the script demanded it.
But we are subjected to some pretty cinematography and some tender moments between the two leads. Speaking of which, I’ve surprisingly not talked about our leads. While the acting is damn good across the board, Oyelowo and Pike carry the film phenomenally. Despite their poorly written relationship in the beginning, they do share wonderful chemistry. Oyelowo delivers some powerhouse performances and Pike is more subtle, a very interesting character contrast that does a great job of complementing the characters, never upstaging one or the other. Seretse is a passionate man, who is hurting that there is such an emotional gap between him and his family over his marriage, but you also feel for Ruth who only wants to do right by everyone, earn the respect of the people of her new home, despite facing a ton of prejudice. It’s compelling and well-written drama.
However, another downside is that the politics are kind of boring. I know this is more or less a political romance, so some political talk is to be expected, but I feel like there was a way to shorten the dialog a little and/or make it more interesting. Of course, this is personal. I acknowledge that political dialog can be tricky to write interesting or exciting, especially if the genre doesn’t lean more in the direction of “thriller” like, say, MISS SLOANE (2016), but without those slow scenes, the audience might end up more lost without them than with.
Overall, this is by no means a bad movie. However, that doesn’t quite take away from the near-comical comparisons that can be made with Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet at the beginning of the movie, as well as the poor writing and quick pacing. When the distractions are done and the meat of the story begins, you’ll find great performances from everyone, but mixed with some boring scenes that are sometimes a chore to get through. The best I can say is that the movie is better than I’m making it out to be, but I can’t say it’s all that good. If you’re a fan of the talent, there’s something here for you. It’s worth seeing, but probably not in theatres. A rental, or if it comes out on any streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu, or whatever.
My honest rating for A UNITED KINGDOM: a strong 3/5