Friday 23 December 2016

A United Kingdom (2016) - Movie Review
Even though humanity loves quoting “can’t judge a book by its cover”, we sure do that very thing quite a bit. Then again, we often present ourselves with opportunities to do so and none are more apparent in that intent than movie trailers. Now, over the course of this year, we’ve seen a wide spectrum of trailers from the good (10 Cloverfield Lane) to the bad (Trolls) to the outright annoying (The Angry Birds Movie), and some of them have even given a far weaker impression of the official product than is actually necessary. Today’s film, on the other hand? You can almost smell the cheese coming off of this thing, and considering this is meant to be a drama, that can’t be a good thing. Every time it got to the line “I love my people, I love this land… but I love my wife”, not matter how many times I’d heard it up to that point, I had to put a lot of effort into not just laughing my arse off in the cinema. It’s one of those “Nothing is more powerful than the human spirit” kind of lines that is near-impossible to take seriously. So, with that bit of unintentional comedy in mind, how is the film proper?

The plot: Ruth (Rosamund Pike), an office worker in London, meets and falls in love with law student Seretse (David Oyelowo). While their blooming relationship causes friction with others who don’t want to see one of their own courting a black person, things are about to get more complicated when Seretse reveals that he is also the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana). Amidst racial tension and the British government doing its best to keep them apart, Seretse and Ruth must fight against the powers that be to stay together.

The cast here is good, although maybe a little too good at what they’ve been tasked with. Oyelowo, even as the speaker of the aforementioned line of cheese, delivers the ever-loving hell out of his dialogue, making even the weaker lines resonant with righteous fire. Pike, while a bit underutilized in regards to her role in the story outside of her relationship with Oyelowo, still manages to give some really dramatic moments, particularly when she’s calling out the British government on the news. Terry Pheto as Seretse’s sister is nice and low-key in both her initial prejudice and her later understanding of her brother’s choices, and Vusi Kunene as his uncle provides some decent conflict, which considering said conflict ends up propelling most of the story is rather vital.

And then we get into the actors portraying the British powers that are holding Seretse back, and if it weren’t for the BBC logo at the start, I’d have guessed that this was an attempt by the U.S. to imitate the British and doing it badly. I say this because Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are just about the most stereotypically posh Brits I’ve seen in quite some time, which only ends up making their dialogue sound goofier as a result. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definite conviction with both of them, but a bit of self-awareness about the words they’re saying wouldn’t have gone amiss.

This film is largely toted as a romance, and it’s within record time that this starts to show problems. Without any real regard for pacing or natural development, the filmmakers go into double-time in order to set up the relationship between Ruth and Seretse as quick as possible. Unfortunately, this ends up feeling like a relationship that has progressed way too quickly without the actual participants being as involved as the script says they are. Pike and Oyelowo do get some nice moments together, like them drunkenly dancing in their house or the scene from the trailer where Seretse says that he didn’t just marry Ruth for her looks, but those are few and far between. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter’s inclusion in the trailer was just to offset the surreal sense of camp from the dialogue presented with one of the few genuine moments in the entire film. And to make matters worse, because the film itself is dependent on how supposedly strong their love is for each other, it can end up falling flat because the film is more concerned with establishing that they’re in love rather than letting us see and feel that they are.

Of course, considering the political and racial climate of the film’s events, we end up getting into themes of prejudice and bureaucracy with how the British government tries to stop the couple from being together. Now, much like Money Monster, this film is very overt in that regard, something only made more glaring when you enter in how inhumanly stuffy the agents of the British government are portrayed in this film. Now, in fairness, it does end up bringing up some interesting points concerning the racial attitudes of the day; namely, that it’s far more pervasive when it comes to labels. Seretse is seen as a threat to the British government, as well as his regent uncle back home, and people aren’t exactly tolerant about his very existence on top of that. On the other hand, once Ruth is brought to Bechuanaland, she ends up on the receiving end of the same treatment and again because of her skin colour. The contrasting of Britain and South Africa’s racial policies honestly shows a certain modicum of intelligence being put into play, something made clearer by how Seretse works around the governmental pressure he’s put under.

I mentioned how trailers and advertising can misrepresent films at the start, and it’s here where things are made crystal clear in that regard. The trailer made no secret about its political stances and that absolutely comes through in the film proper. However, it also makes this film out to be far more of a romance than it actually is. In fact, the romantic angle itself feels like window-dressing to all the soapboxing that the film apparently was far more interested in. This isn’t a romance film as much as it is a political sermon masquerading as a romance. I would get annoyed at the false advertising here, except it didn’t necessarily have to be false. If the film took a bit more time out to build on the relationship between Ruth and Seretse, than maybe the whole narrative could have fared better. Unfortunately, because it is as rushed-through as it is, it ends up hindering the rest of the film as all of the political engagement with the audience is dependent on being invested in the strength of their love… and we just don’t get that here.

All in all, this is a conversation piece about race and prejudice that tries to be about the real-life romance and just ends up falling short. The acting ranges from intense to laughably intense, with Jack Davenport and Tom Felton chipping away at a lot of the film’s credibility through their performances and the direction is admirable enough, but the writing fails to properly frame the events so that what the story ends up focusing on is what we end up focusing on. In better hands, juggling both aspects of the narrative would have been fine, but in this case it would have been better if it just focused on one or the other. Freeheld, this is not.

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