On the surface, A United Kingdom seems like perfect Oscar bait. Well-respected stars, topical subject matter, major studio backing, a trailer that practically screams "Give me awards!!!"- it's all right there in place. With than in mind, I was surprised to learn that Fox Searchlight was holding it for a February release, especially after the film received a major bow at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. I thought it was a completely baffling move, as the studio seemed to put all of their chips on Jackie and The Birth of a Nation (lost in the Oscar narrative- how bad of a year did Searchlight have?) instead of Amma Asante's interracial marriage drama. Ultimately, I think this was the right choice on two levels. For starters, A United Kingdom will make a pretty penny with the lack of adult competition, giving it free reign over the arthouse market for a few weeks. But secondly, it's just not a very good movie. Sluggish, flat, and devoid of any sense of purpose or momentum, A United Kingdom is a shockingly dull misfire. It's choppy and tiresome, never getting off the ground despite two strong central performances.
An unremarkable rendition of the remarkable true story, A United Kingdom follows the relationship between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the king of African nation Bechuanaland (which later became Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a British woman. It's 1947, and Khama is studying in London to get his law degree when he runs into Williams at a party. The two instantly connect, and soon enough (and I mean really soon), they find themselves falling in love with each other. However, there's one small problem- Seretse is a king and he has to return to his country to rule his people. That would seem to end the love affair between him and Ruth, but the two aren't content to let politics divide their love. Seretse proposes to Ruth after a remarkably brief courtship, and she says yes without any hesitation.
But things aren't quite as simple as their undying love for each other. With Seretse's position as king of Bechuanaland, the political ramifications of their interracial marriage reverberates across the British empire. Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton) are tasked with keeping Seretse and Ruth from getting married, something that will keep South Africa happy and avoid conflict within the Commonwealth. In addition, Ruth will have to work with the people of Bechuanaland, who aren't so comfortable with the idea of having a white woman as their queen, while also dealing with the fact that her parents won't speak to her. As the brutal, divisive politics of Great Britain attempt to divide the marriage, Seretse and Ruth will remain determined, pushing forward against all odds to break barriers in the U.K. and beyond.
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are two incredibly talented, charismatic actors, and I thought that they would at least be able to carry this drama. And while it's true that they're certainly the best part of this film, they still can't jolt A United Kingdom to life. Oyelowo has a few rousing moments as Khama, delivering powerful speeches and firmly standing tall against the racism of the oppressive British. But he never finds the soul of the King of Bechuanaland, which is disappointing considering his carefully crafted performances in films like Selma and The Butler. On the other hand, Pike created one of the most fearsome villains of the 21st century with Gone Girl's Amy Dunne, but she's sadly relegated to the sidelines for most of A United Kingdom. Seretse deals with all of the politics, and Ruth is there to react to whatever happens. She has no real autonomy as a character, and that's a letdown with Pike's track record in mind.
While the two stars do their best with shaky material, the fact that the love story in A United Kingdom doesn't really work is ultimately what drags the whole thing down. It hinders the performances of Oyelowo and Pike, it prevents the audience from ever getting emotionally involved, and it makes the film feel tired and stodgy instead of sweeping and romantic. Seretse and Ruth have an extremely short relationship before marriage, and there's never truly a moment where things click and they seem to be in love. Blame that on the two stars or on the screenplay by Guy Hibbert, but whatever the case, the setup of this movie does not work. And then for the rest of the movie, the relationship between the King and his wife sits on the backburner in favor of lengthy discussions about political ramifications.
I know that Hibbert and director Amma Asante were confined by the true story of the Khama family, but there had to have been a more interesting story in there than this. All of the potentially engaging aspects of what should have been an epic tale of love are skimmed over in favor of the bigger picture. Asante is clearly fascinated by the bigger idea of the connections between Britain, South Africa, and the African colonies, and in a different movie, that may have been compelling. But here, it just slows down the film to a snail's pace, barely lurching forward while putting the audience through endless conversations with Canning and Lancaster. All of these scenes feel like generic exposition dumps, and as the runtime went on, I slowly realized that Asante and Hibbert had missed the heart of this story.
A United Kingdom has some handsome cinematography and a few appealing performances, but nothing in this film ever really clicks. You can see the pieces in place, but the filmmakers just chose to tell the wrong story. What should have been a timeless narrative about love in the face of hate and insurmountable odds quickly devolves into a tired political showdown, one that feels both familiar and exhausting. A United Kingdom flips on a dime between its different ideas and ambitions, and that scattershot approach suffocates the dramatic energy of the entire film. I was checking my watch quite frequently during this one, and I'll be honest with you, that's not something I ever do. There's a good story buried somewhere inside this mess of a movie, but you won't find it here. In such an unusually good spring season for cinema, A United Kingdom isn't worth your time.
THE FINAL GRADE: C- (5.2/10)
Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight