Friday, February 24, 2017

A United Kingdom: A stirring, heartfelt drama

A United Kingdom (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for racial epithets and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.17

This film’s arrival couldn’t be more timely.

We need it. Desperately. And others like it.

Having met only recently, but nonetheless mutually smitten, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo)
and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) spend every free moment together ... despite the
knowledge that responsibilities soon will force him to leave England.
Director Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is a sensitively handled, deeply moving account of the turmoil that erupted in 1948, when Seretse Khama, the new young king of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), had the ill-advised audacity to fall in love with — and marry — Lloyd’s of London office clerk Ruth Williams.

It’s a helluva story. Their union became a headline-making scandal in both his homeland and Britain, despite the latter’s (somewhat) more tolerant attitude toward the color barrier. But broadmindedness had nothing to do with the British government’s reaction, which was shaped solely by nervous anxiety over South Africa’s decision, that same year, to implement apartheid ... which, among many other cruel decrees, banned interracial marriage.

South Africa viewed the existence of just such an interracial couple, directly across its northern border, as a provocative insult. Britain, deeply in debt following the war, desperately needed to maintain the influx of cheap South African gold and uranium, and also worried about the havoc and economic ruin that would result, should South Africa choose to invade its smaller neighbor.

Guy Hibbert’s screenplay — adapted from Susan Williams’ 2006 book, Colour Bar — certainly doesn’t shy from the political and economic issues that prompted such bad behavior by so many individuals in the British government, up to and including Winston Churchill, when he began his second term as prime minister in 1951. At the same time, the new young king faced equal censure from his own people, already chafing under intrusive British “guidance,” and therefore deeply resentful of this white female interloper who knew nothing of their culture, history or deeply rooted national pride.

But Asante never allows such controversy and international fallout to overwhelm the two people at the heart of this saga, and that’s where this film gets its core strength. Stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are both terrific, depicting their respective characters with dignity, grace, intelligence and firm resolve. Rarely have two people been forced to confront such harsh barriers to the peace and happiness they shared, in each other’s company.

Viewers recently glued to the first season of The Crown are bound to compare the Khama/Williams debacle to the crisis that erupted when Britain’s Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, in order to marry his true love: the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, who had the additional impertinence to be an American. But the crucial details were significantly different: Church of England strictures did not allow remarriage if ex-spouses still were alive, and no such rules applied to Seretse and Ruth.

More to the point, the British people bitterly opposed King Edward’s behavior — and obviously loathed Simpson — whereas public sentiment was very much on the side of young King Khama and his bride.

But all this comes later. Asante and Hibbert begin their story in London, where Seretse has been sent to complete studies at both Oxford and London’s Inner Temple, in order to become a barrister: all part of the educational broadening overseen by his Uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), the regent/guardian governing the country until his nephew is ready to ascend to the throne.

Ruth’s sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael), reaches out to the post-war immigrant community via missionary work; they meet Seretse at a dance mixer, when he shows up with several friends. The spark between Seretse and Ruth is palpable, and they soon spend every possible moment together: a relationship that she fails to share with her parents, knowing full well that her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) would disapprove.

Shortly thereafter, Seretse receives word that the time has come for him to return to Bechuanaland, to begin his duties as king. His subsequent meeting with Ruth is the first of many intensely poignant scenes shared by Oyelowo and Pike.

Ruth listens as Seretse explains the situation, her eyes holding back tears, under the quite logical assumption that she’ll never see him again; Pike grows visibly more fragile as we watch, until it seems the slightest touch would shatter her like porcelain. But that isn’t Seretse’s intent at all, which she realizes when he drops to one knee. Oyelowo’s face is a panoply of emotions, as Seretse proposes, his voice determined but not quite steady: hope, vulnerability, wariness — is this too presumptuous, too much, too soon? — but, most of all, devotion.

When Ruth accepts — surprised, delighted, disbelieving — we realize that we’ve been holding our breath. It’s one of the most sweetly tender marriage proposals ever captured on film.

When this imminent union goes public, the reaction is swift and unpleasant. What likely was a regiment of censorious British government officials — in real life — is boiled down into one (fictitious) individual: Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), an assertive Foreign Office diplomat who orders the couple to cease such foolish thoughts. When that fails, the odiously reptilian Canning’s actions become progressively more harsh. And spiteful.

Davenport plays this role well, his superficial urbane charm wholly at odds with a bullying nature that clearly takes perverse delight in the ability to control his perceived lessers. That Canning is backed by the full support of top-level British government, makes him even more deviously malicious.

Rarely has the offer of a glass of sherry been freighted with so much malice.

But the situation is equally tempestuous in Bechuanaland. Seretse’s uncle, disgusted by this marriage, estranges himself from the couple; this fractures the country, since — the rule of succession, and the young king’s popularity notwithstanding — Tshekedi also wields considerable influence. Seizing on this schism as an indication of the protectorate’s “instability,” Canning begins proceedings that will declare Seretse unfit to rule.

Subsequent events unfold over the course of several years, and are best experienced — at times, in utter disbelief — as they occur. No spoilers here.

As we move into the second and third acts, Hibbert’s script condenses events significantly, at times diminishing our ability to appreciate the intricacies of interpersonal dynamics. We need to spend more time with Seretse and Tshekedi, to better understand the latter’s position; Kunene’s imposing performance makes Tshekedi an honorable man in his own right, also acting in what he believes is his country’s best interest.

But given Seretse’s ability to charm his people, particularly during the all-important kgotlas (community councils) that determine the nation’s path, we see little evidence that Tshekedi is in a position to create a problem.

Hibbert spends much more time depicting each new affront by Canning and his toadying sidekick, Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton, suitably condescending), and not nearly enough with the subtle intricacies of Seretse’s family dynamic. The latter includes not just Tshekedi, but also Seretse’s sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto). Her first encounter with Ruth is chilling, as is the perceptive verbal fury with which this white interloper is dissected and rebuked. It’s a great speech, albeit breathtakingly harsh, and Pheto delivers it superbly.

As this dressing-down progresses, Pike flinches, as if Ruth were being struck repeatedly. Which she is, of course. The actual Ruth Williams Khama must have encountered similar treatment, at first; it’s hard to imagine the reality being worse than this depiction.

Hibbert is quite skilled at such interactions, having held us rapt during all of 2015’s Eye in the Sky, which devotes the bulk of its 102 minutes to confrontational talking heads.

That said, Hibbert skimps a bit on essential emotional transition. Naledi’s eventual transformation — admittedly necessary — seems awfully abrupt.

But you may not mind such occasional, fairy-tale superficialities. Asante and Hibbert build up considerable good will, during their handling of this astonishing real-world saga, and there’s no denying Oyelowo and Pike’s ability to hold our hearts and minds.

The tech values are excellent, with production designer Simon Bowles conveying a strong sense of time and place in both the London and Bechuanaland settings; indeed, much of the latter location work took place in Botswana, most particularly the stirring kgotla scenes. Sam McCurdy’s cinematography gives post-war London a somewhat grimy, rainy and claustrophobic look, in order to better contrast with Bechuanaland’s wide open spaces and sticky, oppressive temperatures (which, in Pike’s heat-fatigued gaze, we almost can feel ourselves).

A United Kingdom — perfect title, just in passing — is an honorable, heartfelt drama that clearly drew profoundly personal work from everybody on both sides of the camera. It’s an educational and stirring experience that makes us want to rush from the theater, to research these people in greater detail.

No filmmaker could ask for more.

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