A United Kingdom is in cinemas on Boxing Day
When Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) locks eyes with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) across the dance floor on a London night, their connection is immediate. She’s a bank clerk, he’s a law student. The year is 1948, and the city is still on shaky ground, still rebuilding. But the electricity of their union (and Pike and Oyelowo’s chemistry) could light the sky. It’s forged over mutual record exchanges and love notes, deliveries that make them excitedly run to their bedrooms, to keep the small piece of the other person they have been given only to themselves. A proposal bathed in the yellow glow of Big Ben set to romantic notes seals the deal, but something else hangs in the air. Seretse is not just another law student – he’s the heir to Bechuanaland (Botswana, administered by Britain at the time), abroad to study at university; and India’s break to independence is on the radio. When there’s talk of apartheid, it’s with crushing inevitability; one has the privileged insight of what is to come. The world invades the universe that existed only for the other, saddled with the particularly cumbersome phrase “diplomatic necessity”.
Director Amma Asante also helmed 2013’s Belle, which did little to reinvent the great British film institution of the period drama, but was another vividly detailed, earnest slice of little-known history. It has possibly become too easy to connect each week’s new releases with what’s going on outside the cinema. Or is it all happening in tandem? The darkened rooms are the last sacred space, where phones are outlawed (or at least for now) and one can escape the world for two hours. But it’s a radical empathy machine (to steal from Roger Ebert), one that Asante is deftly in control of. There is little in A United Kingdom that one hasn’t seen before, playing relatively to the familiar beats as Seretse and Ruth move to Botswana and are eventually separated for a lengthy amount of time, complete with rousingly moving moments of speeches and separation aplenty.The film lives or dies on Oyelowo and Pike’s irresistible chemistry. But Asante doesn’t intend to lie about how the world has progressed since 1948, quite the opposite in fact. Here, convention is used to upend, be critical of imperialism and oppressive ideas of national identity from inside one of its many enforcers – cinema – by voicing the voiceless. There is no denying who the audience here is, one that likely would never have encountered Khama and Williams’s story (or Dido Belle’s, for that matter) if it weren’t for the existence of Asante’s beautifully realised, empathetic films. Perhaps, in 2016, that’s radical enough.