Arriving on home video this weekend, the true life story of an African prince and his middle class English bride feels like it owes more to its BBC origins than its director.
Released to cinemas late last year to decent acclaim – and talk of Oscar nominations – Amma Asante’s third feature is based on the true story of the inspirational relationship between an African prince and a middle class British woman in the years after WWII. But it’s also more than that – it’s a snapshot of Britain desperately trying to hold on to some vestige of international influence and a colonised nation finding its own voice.
The love story, though, is how this picture is being sold and while that love story lacks passion, it does make clear the devotion required for these two heroes to save their people (and their adopted people). David Oyelowo (previously a powerful Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma) plays Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, in England training to take over as leader of his people. Rosamund Pike attempts to dial down her usual luminous presence somewhat as Ruth Williams, the civil servant who stole his heart.
Bechuanaland (present day Botswana) had been a British protectorate since Khama’s grandfather – fearing the growing influence of neighbouring South Africa – had called in Queen Victoria for help. As Khama prepares to take his new bride home and claim his throne the couple are warned that the rest of the region (especially South Africa who are about to institute Apartheid) would not accept a mixed marriage on their doorstep. Britain, needing access to South Africa’s diamonds, gold and uranium, equivocates to such a degree that eventually Khama is exiled from his own country on the orders of Prime Minister Attlee (and confirmed by his Conservative replacement Churchill).
The film tiptoes around the idea that objections to the Khama marriage came from both black and white, eventually confirming that the Bechuana resistance to the idea came from a fear of political realities rather than the barely-suppressed racism expressed by the other side.
If the film fails to move, the fault lies with Guy Hibbert’s plodding screenplay which spends rather too much time having characters explain things to each other for the benefit of the viewer rather than themselves. Hibbert is primarily a television writer (although the Helen Mirren vehicle Eye in the Sky last year was a terrific cinema release) and the strong presence of BBC funding makes it feel like a grand Sunday night drama rather than a great film. Asante’s eye is strong and the contrasts between rainy London and glowing Bechuanaland are glorious.
Amma Asante entered showbusiness in the 1980s as a child actress, featuring during the golden age of the high school soap Grange Hill. Transitioning to a role behind the camera after her teens, she wrote and produced television in the UK before making her feature debut with A Way of Life in 2004, a film that won a BAFTA for first feature as well as prizes from Miami and FIPRESCI. And, as is so often the case for women filmmakers, a second feature proved difficult to get off the ground.
Eventually, historical drama Belle came out in 2013, nine years after her first feature film success, but it did lead to Asante being noticed by Hollywood where she was briefly attached to the Katherine Heigl comedy-thriller Unforgettable. Wisely, she chose A United Kingdom instead. Later this year, her fourth feature, Where Hands Touch (another historical drama centred on mixed-race relationships) should be ready for release.
A United Kingdom is released on DVD and Blu-ray (and other home video formats) on 25 April.
#52filmsbywomen2017 is a project encouraging film lovers to seek out and enjoy films made by women. Dan will be posting one new review a week (ish) throughout 2017.