2013’s Belle was an under-the-radar critical success from British filmmaker, Amma Asante, and the anticipated follow-up to her debut back in 2004, A Way of Life, which garnered some attention in several international film festivals. Two things that Belle accomplished, aside from being a really great period drama, is first launching actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, into welcome stardom, and second, cemented Amma Asante as a voice in modern cinema that is worth keeping an eye out for. This brings us to her third film, A United Kingdom, another period drama – this time, written by Guy Hibbert, and centering on the early lives of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), and how their interracial relationship sparked an international stir.
In many ways, A United Kingdom can be considered a thematic companion piece to Belle. Both films hone in on race relations at very specific points in time, and using the conflicts that come out of it to explore the socio-political underpinnings of said era. But whereas Belle focused on the raising of a mixed-race woman in 18th century British aristocracy, A United Kingdom broadens the scope by exploring British imperialism, the ins-and-outs of the functioning and problems associated with monarchies and royal families, and the troubling politics of South Africa, and their relations with other African territories.
Yes, I’m aware that this might sound boring – and it might just be on paper – but on screen, Asante works her magic like a master, creating a rousing, romantic, and wholly cinematic experience that explores the political machine in a way that feels completely relevant today, despite the late 40s setting. Much of it simply boils down to the two lead performances, which are outstanding. Even though the film doesn’t spend a lot of time with them during their dating phase, there’s such a strong chemistry and vibrant connection between the two that resonates so well that when the proposal happens seemingly ten minutes into the film, you totally buy it.
Rosamund Pike brings a strength to her character that is subtle, quiet, but effective, while at the same time having a vulnerability that is matched by David Oyelowo. He has been one of the most consistently reliable actors in the past several years, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Every moment feels like he’s working on multiple layers, filled with confidence, yet a certain sensitivity that oozes of empathy.
The other day, I was watching Doctor Zhivago on Turner Classic Movies, and a thought popped into my mind: there really isn’t any equivalent to David Lean in modern cinema as a director, and storyteller. However, Asante seems to have all the ingredients of the epics that David Lean has brought us. With Belle, and A United Kingdom, Asante has been telling stories that have an incredible sense of place and time, with immaculate detail. They often deal with characters who find themselves in some sort of culture clash and examinations of the cultural context of the period. And in her latest, she captures such a broad sense of scope from the dark, rainy London streets to the warm, sun drenched landscapes of Africa (captured stunningly by cinematographer, Sam McCurdy), yet she never loses sight of the emotion that is ultimately driving the story more than anything else. I would give an arm and a leg to see what wonders Amma Asante could pull off with a big budget and more plentiful resources at her disposal.
Like Belle, I have a feeling A United Kingdom will also fall under-the-radar for many people, especially since the film will only be opening in select theaters this coming weekend (February 10th). However, this is a film that is – without a doubt – worth seeking out. It’s a great piece of filmmaking, one that is personal, purposeful, and poignant. Amma Asante continues to be one of the finest filmmakers out there today, and I hope she continues to bring her vision to the big screen. It’s also worth noting that her next film, Where Hands Touch, is currently in post-production, and revolves around a romance between a mixed-race German girl and a SS officer. So, if she knocks this out of the park, she might pull off one of the all time great non-sequential trilogies, with Belle, A United Kingdom, and Where Hands Touch having a thematic thread that ties them all together. But that’s later, right now, A United Kingdom is one that should be sought out, not just because it’s “important,” but because it’s an elegant work of art.