Thursday, 6 October 2016

London Film Festival: A United Kingdom

Leicester Square played host to the Opening Gala for the 60th London Film Festival last night and A United Kingdom was the film chosen to launch proceedings with a bang. Based on a true story and directed by Amma Assante, A United Kingdom has all the makings of a truly epic film that could lead it to being considered as the 'Cry Freedom' for a new generation...

On arrival at last nights red carpet Opening Gala, there was a tangible air of expectation. I guess there always is at these sort of things and the London Film Festival's opening salvo is always going to be a memorable occasion. As 2016 marks the 60th birthday of the Festival it has always been clear that the BFI are out to impress and A United Kingdom was always going to be leading the charge in this respect. Personally, I was deeply affected by Richard Attenborough's powerful indictment of apartheid in its unflinching retelling of Steve Biko's life (an early martyr for the long and bloody battle for equality in South Africa) Cry Freedom was a wonderful film in that it not only condemned the evils of a corrupt system of rule that led to the segregation of people due to the colour of their skin but it was also cinematically stunning. With ever increasing calls for studios to make big budget films cheaply I had thought that it was unlikely such a tale of cross continental trauma could ever be told effectively again. A United Kingdom's trailer teases that this may not be the case and Amma Assante is not the sort of Director that compromises either her own or the projects that she works on so I had high hopes.

As many of the cast alluded to during the red carpet interviews, the story retold at the heart of the film is not widely known. So, without giving too much away, here is a brief overview as a context to my review. Sir Seretse Kharma is a King in waiting to the African country of Bechaunaland, a country of outstanding natural beauty but also one of the poorest nations in the world. Bechaunaland boasts a strong and ancient ruling lineage and Seretse has been studying in England as part of his preparations for his Royal duties. Nearing the end of his studies he falls in love with a young English girl, Ruth Williams, and the ensuing political and racial storm that erupts forms the basis of the film. Based on the novel, Colour Bar by Susan Williams, this is a story of racial hatred from both sides and of political power and greed that engulfed our country.

Beating loudly within A United Kingdom's heart is a love story that is so pure it seduces you with its beauty. Seretse and Ruth are instantly drawn to each other by their love of jazz and dance but also their individual strength of resolve and refusal to compromise. It is a wonderful story of love conquers all that, had it not been delivered so assuredly and with a modern day relevance, could have easily fallen into over blown sickly sentiment. The fact that it avoids this pitfall is testament to both Assante's direction and the performance of the cast and, be assured that this is no star vehicle. A United Kingdom is a film that is the sum of all its parts with every character and performance as important as the next. Ensemble performance has never had a better champion yet what lasts long in my memory are the career defining turns from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Oyelowo is utterly believable as Seretse and his conflict between his passionate love for his wife and his intense love of a land he wishes to lead is painfully felt. Pike is perfectly cast as the strong English girl who found her resolve and strength driving crash ambulances as part of the war effort. The onscreen chemistry between Oyelowo and Pike feels believable and natural, something which could easily have derailed the film if it had felt forced. Jack Davenport is utilised as a clever embodiment of the British Government's manipulations and his cold and slimy demeanour made my skin crawl. A United Kingdom is a film that needs no padding and the pace does not flag for one second. Whilst it is clear that long stretches of time pass during its 111 minute running time this does not detract from the story line or the character arcs.

Assante's decision to highlight issues of racism are not to be ignored and in a society that has all to recently been ripped apart by horendous acts of racial abuse this is a timely film. Assante vividly highlights the sad truth that racism is discrimination based on any colour or nationality and that this equally aborent, whether White against Black or Black against White. As repugnant as the hatred Seretse experiences is, both at the hands of the British Government and from some within the general public, Ruth also experiences similar when desperately trying to be accepted by the Bechaunaland people. As long as we witness examples of individuals who are prevented from being who they wish to be because of race, colour or creed then A United Kingdom has a resonant message that shouts to be heard. The final image of the film is one of freeze frame that transforms from Oyelowo and Pike to Seretse and Ruth. A United Kingdom calls for just that but its sentiment can be amplified and echoed around the globe.

"No Man Is Free Who Is Not Master Of Himself"
Sir Seretse Karma

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