A United Kingdom

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Review: A United Kingdom / Running time: 111 mins / Rating: M

If I am honest I can’t say that I was particularly enthused to see A United Kingdom.  A story of love that ushered in the birth of democracy in Botswana certainly sounds intriguing, yet something in its trailer left me wanting. Nonetheless, a dull trailer sometimes offers the film a gain — as they say, under promise and over deliver.

Set against the backdrop of post-war politics in the forties and fifties, A United Kingdom is based on the true story of the relationship between Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white salesman’s daughter and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a black Bechuanaland (now Botswana) national who happens to be next in line to the nation’s throne. Racial concerns initially beset their relationship; however, disapproval from the British government as well as Bechuanaland’s current ruler cause further strain later in their marriage. Battle lines are clearly marked out and Seretse’s choice between love and duty is a conundrum that fully hits home in a stirring speech to his people: “I love my people, but I love my wife”. The waters are further muddied by the subsequent forced exile of Seretse which both separates him from his nation as well as the now pregnant Ruth. His desperation to return home sets up the film’s final stanza which thematically explores the conflict between entrenched institutions and progressive change.

Director Amma Asante (Belle) has entered the hostile territory of race relations and politics at a very personal level.  Her ability to tell a love story amidst the political turmoil of fringe post-war politics is handled confidently, and she appears to have drawn very heart-felt performances from Pike and Oyelowo, who both skilfully traverse the fragile path of mixing politics with the personal.

Yet, this very interesting story is let down by a very tame screenplay (by Guy Hibbert) that at times lacks subtlety and unfortunately doesn’t risk any opportunities where a nuanced approach might have worked better. There is no doubt that this is a crowd pleasing film and it appeared to win its audience over … at least in the theatre I was in. Moreover, it certainly engaged me on a personal level. But alas, the mild mannered approach to its political agenda left me wishing it had a little more teeth.

3 stars out of 5

 

Is there a beating human heart in A United Kingdom?

                                                                                      – one Christian’s perspective.

What is the film really about?

A United Kingdom is about many things — race, gender, change, and power, are themes that immediately spring to mind. However, at its core this is film about love and its arduous journey through the testing conditions of the aforementioned themes (race, gender, change, and power). Specifically, it explores what love means in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. Love is explored on a personal level (Seretse and Ruth’s love for each other) and at a corporate level (Seretse’s love for his people).  A United Kingdom offers the analogy of Christ’s love for the church: Just as Seretse loved his people, Christ loves the church.  Just as Seretse “loved his wife” the church is the bride of Christ.

What is the protagonist’s core motivation?

Seretse’s core motivation is summed up in his heart-felt speech to his people: “I love my people, but I love my wife.”  In one sentence he sums up the anguish he feels over the injustice about not being allowed to love both.  There are many examples in the bible that tell of similar circumstances, where loving personally and corporately is met with conflict … the story of Moses is a classic example.

What is the film trying to tell us?

Indeed, why did director Amma Asante want to tell the story? In an interview with the BBC, she mentions that she is motivated by “beautiful films that mean something, that create discussion and inform debate.” A key component of A United Kingdom is that it is based on true events.  When the end credits role, we see stills of the real Seretse and Ruth and inter-titles that elaborate on the birth of democracy in Botswana.  The film is offering an example of what humans are capable of by virtue of its non-fiction nature.  It is saying “this is what really happened”.  When we read the bible, how often are we reminded that these are events that actually happened? If it was a made up story, then would it have the same impact?

Does the film use anything more than the story to convey meaning i.e. colour, framing etc.

Although it tries hard the cinematography appears to be disjointed and slightly distracting from the story.  The story is the key to this film, and beyond a vague attempt at colour grading London towards the negative, there is not much to remark with regards toward the film’s “technicalities”.

Does it promote turning towards or turning away from good?

A United Kingdom is a positive film that promotes good values.  It wears subtexts on its sleeve and is fairly transparent in its agenda.


Do you think I’m way off the mark? See something in the film you want to get off your chest? Just want to chat about film? If so then feel free to leave a comment. All opinions, comments or discussion points are welcome.

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Welcome

My name is Toby Woollaston and I am a film critic for NZME.  This blog aims to take the films that I review and throw them under a Christian lens, exploring to what extent these films can be viewed as “prayers” by the secular. The goal is to break down the perceived wall between movies dedicated to God and movies done for worldly motivations — to understand that many secular films are an expression that is just as valid to Christian audiences as it is to non-Christian audiences.

Film as a medium provides such fertile ground for the communication of human expression.  As such, films are often more than just mere entertainment, but express very real feelings and tell stories about the world we all live in. However, I have met many Christians that shy away from “secular” cinema because, among other reasons, it represents a world that ignores God.

So what do I mean when I refer to the “secular”?

Secularism, particularly in film, is not a state of neutrality as some suggest.  When observing and analysing movies it is immediately apparent that there is no such thing as a neutral film.  By its inherent nature cinema expresses at least some form of opinion or view, be it bad, good, wrong, or right.  In brief, secular cinema is born out of some sort of world view-point.

American hiphop artist and Christian, William “Duce” Branch summarises that “conflict is inevitable in the Christian life between the so-called secular and the sacred. Some think that secular means ‘neutral.’ But that’s not true. Things done for the world, by the world’s standards, and without God in view are called secular, and they are trying to expand secularism. This is as ideological as the sacred things done to advance the recognition of God.”

Branch observes the common ideologies between both the secular world and the Christian world but acknowledges that there is conflict between them. However, we must constantly remember that God is sovereign over all life. God is in all life. The secular world and the Christian world — secular cinema and Christian cinema. Watching secular films garners an understanding of secular thinking. To understand the struggles of people who do not call themselves Christian is important. After all, if we as Christians are genuine about saving the lost then we must understand the world that we all share.

In his yet to be released book Movies are prayers: how films voice out deepest longings, film critic and editor of Think Christian, Josh Larsen, takes a selection of iconic films and explores the extent to which they are prayers on topics such anger, confession, lament, yearning, justice, obedience, contemplation, joy.  Larsen’s project challenged me about the films that I review and has been the impetus for this blog. My aim is to encourage the reader to see and understand filmic expression and its intention to communicate in much the same way that we as Christians view prayer. In doing so, I hope to peel off the outer layers of film and find a beating human heart within. Of course not all films will stand up to such an examination and I am expecting some films to be inherently flat and lifeless. Regardless, this should be an enlightening project and I hope that you and I will learn more about film … and more importantly about our relationship with God.