A UNITED KINGDOM: A Feel-Good Biopic Done Right

Right now, we could all do with a bit of escapism. News headlines around the world have failed to predict cataclysmic events that risk dividing society and reversing all the progress different minority groups have made since the mid 20th century.

The mantra of “love is love” from the LGBT community and it’s allies is sadly not reflected in the bigger picture; a rise in recorded hate crime across western society towards all minority groups is symptomatic of the political shit-show that is 2016.

An Antidote to the hatred of the modern world

As leaders of Neo-Nazi groups continue to celebrate mainstream political successes by supposed “anti-establishment’ politicians, a movie like A United Kingdom feels quietly radical. It is unashamedly mainstream and falls victim to the worst biopic cliches, but as a welcome reminder that love will forever be stronger than prejudice, it is the perfect antidote to our bleak reality. Sometimes, you need a touch of schmaltz to help you through the hard times.

A UNITED KINGDOM: A Feel-Good Biopic Done Right
source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The third feature from director Amma Assante doesn’t break any new ground and will likely be derided by many in the critical community for its earnestness, as well as a noted lack of distinguishable directorial features. To deride it for such reasons is to miss the point entirely.

In a jaded world, a story about love overcoming racial and social divisions (as cheesy as it clearly sounds) needs to be made in the most mainstream manner possible. The supposed “elite” of arthouse audiences don’t need a reminder of these messages, but those susceptible to rolling news coverage that depicts the worst of humanity every day definitely need an injection of this feel-good formula. This is mainstream cinema at its most joyous, a reminder that a film doesn’t have to qualify as a “work of art” to represent the best of the art form.

A United Kingdom depicts the unlikely relationship between Serese Kharma, the first president of Botswana and his controversial bride: the white, English Ruth Williams, who may have become a popular figure in the country but was the subject of much controversy initially. Portrayed by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike respectively, we see their struggle from marrying in a repressive British society in the late 40’s, to trying to rule as royalty in a country then owned by the British, who were trying to ease South African racial tensions by stopping the marriage in the time of Apartheid.

Which isn’t to say the movie is preachy in any way. The strongest element of Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is that he manages to make the political feel personal effortlessly; he doesn’t need to sermonise about the political situation outside of standard exposition dumps, because the struggle can be clearly seen through the strains on the inter-character relationships.

A UNITED KINGDOM: A Feel-Good Biopic Done Right
source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In this regard, it is more successful than Hibbert’s screenplay for Eye in the Sky; although a better movie, its portrayal of the dense complications of drone warfare was clearly designed to make you alter your political viewpoints. This doesn’t have the same intentions, it is a character drama that just happens to be drawn against a political backdrop.

Makes the political personal

For many middle-of-the-road prestige pictures in the same ball park as A United Kingdom, one of the major flaws is the reliance on broad comedy. You only need to think back to Hibbert’s screenplay for the aforementioned drone warfare movie earlier this year, when a dense dramatisation of disastrous consequences was punctuated via a subplot involving a leading politician suffering from diarrhoea.

Whenever comedic moments happen in films of this type, it often comes across as rather cynical; playing to the cheap seats under an assumption that they won’t be invested in the story if it is not told in the broadest manner possible. Here, the jokes don’t fall flat as they are firmly rooted in the characters. It may feel more polished than everyday conversation, but the humour feels realistic to the situations presented; nobody stops at a dramatic moment to wink at the camera and deliver an asinine one-liner here.

A UNITED KINGDOM: A Feel-Good Biopic Done Right
source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Assante’s direction is far from polished. If you were to judge this solely on an aesthetic level, it would be the subject of much ridicule. She relies on visual cliches such as spinning newspapers filling in on exposition – a cliche so old hat, it has been over 20 years since The Simpsons initially parodied the practice. Luckily, the heart shines through thanks to two utterly charming central performances, making A United Kingdom feel irresistible in the process.

As Seretse Kharma, David Oyelowo is one of the most instantly likeable screen characters in recent memory. Sure, the character is granted a big speech in the second act, which calls to mind his masterful performance as MLK in Selma, but outside of that one grandstanding moment, he’s as believable as a character in a melodramatic biopic can possibly feel.

As for Rosamund Pike, she manages to balance the realism and the melodrama perfectly. In many moments, it feels like her performance is a direct tribute to the actresses in the “women’s pictures” that were popular during the era A United Kingdom is set.

For a film that is carried entirely by its performances and not on directorial merits, it should be noted that there isn’t much to say about characters painted in such broad strokes. But when they are characterised with this much love and care, their broad appeal fails to be a problem. Only the villainous role played by Jack Davenport feels out of place – any nuances to a complicated political process that are hinted at are completely obliterated with this moustache twirling performance.

Conclusion

A United Kingdom has plenty of flaws, but more than makes up for them with a heart and an affection that is utterly intoxicating. A masterpiece of cinema this is not, but for a piece of escapism that briefly makes you feel like the world is a better place, you can’t do much better than this.

What are the best feel-good biopics of the past few years?

A United Kingdom is released in UK cinemas on November 25 and in the US on February 17 2017. All international release dates are here. 

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