Political hypocrisy and racial tension seems to be a theme for 2016; A United Kingdom makes it clear this is a trend for all years. Lee reviews.
A tangible connection to reality, that’s why the biopic continues to thrive throughout cinema’s ever-changing history. If the constant struggle for fictional work is to maintain audience suspension of disbelief, then the easy solution is to reverse this sensation to suspension of unbelief. Let the work challenge the audience, not vice-versa. For most biopics, this eases or erases the need to please audiences entirely; the news doesn’t have to please people, it simply has to be. The story can be as unfair or as uneven as possible and will receive little backlash bar from those who can tell the story better.
A United Kingdom takes the hard road even for a biopic, however, by acting against the inherent benefits of the form. Here, we have a tough story about racial pressure, political corruption and human hypocrisy, portrayed with a clean three-act structure, an emphasis on against-all-odds romance and a satisfying good-triumphs-over-evil finale where the good guys thoroughly beat the bad guys and live happily ever after. For a biopic, this is ironically the hard road as it essentially converts non-fiction into fiction, and thus holds it up to the scrutiny we reserve especially for what we know best; delightfully allowing us to dance past politics and complain about art and so on.
What’s important, and indeed great, about A United Kingdom’s decision to frame the story in this way is that it brings some hard-hitting truths into an accessible format. Racism and political corruption, especially in the UK, feel exactly the same in the 1940s as they do today and all that glossy camera sheen really helps drive home how essentially similar today and yesterday feel. But rather than drive this home with a 12 Years a Slave-like horror-story-cum-spiritual-battle-cry, which ultimately dares to lose watchers in the sheer terror of the reality it represents, here we see the terror form much of a background to the overall plot and see how it affects the individuals in a far more general light. It’s racism for the whole family!
Which is good, and important, and driven home by some great performances from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. While they don’t always feel like real people with their grand speeches and their dramatic set-pieces, they certainly represent real suffering in a way that can be recognisable to anyone because it’s more about what it does to their relationship than what it does to their right to exist, something far more complex than good ol’ fashioned love.
Unfortunately, these exact pros make for equivalent cons. A glossy accessible story about historical horrors makes for a number of missteps in its often dubious and tenable relationship to reality, especially regarding the pacing and unveiling of many of the dramatic touchstones for the story. The crowd rebel and Ruth goes into labour at the exact same time? She drives herself to hospital? Not bloody likely, and these little contrivances really make us focus on the “based” part of “based on true events”. This gets driven home by the ‘evil incarnation of all things evil and British’ Alistair Canning, who is of course wholly fictional and, while useful for the screenplay certainly, robs the film of much of its educational merit regarding the political climate.
And if we’re going to take a stand against racism, shouldn’t we also invent a few stands against stereotypical representations of women while the fruit is ripe with potential? Ruth essentially exists to emotionally drive Seretse, and to act as a medium for relating to the tensions of the people in Bechuanaland, but never really acts upon her own anger and indignation as she is dragged from abuse to abuse. If we’re playing fast and loose with history, why not take a few more stands in the meantime? Would audiences really object to a woman standing her ground after the fifth time she gets her ear chewed off by racists instead of taking it with a stammer each time? I highly doubt it.
It feels, for what it does right, the film misses the mark on enough grounds to really challenge a recommendation. Couple that with competent but uninteresting direction and you have a film that will happily exist to shock the viewers of BBC Two some Sunday night next year, but ultimately won’t have anyone coming back to it once the message has been digested.
Still, it’s certainly competent and gets much of the job done, which is really all it had to do. Look forward to that Sunday, British TV enthusiasts.