REVIEW: A United Kingdom

22 02 2017

History is rarely tidy enough to have personifications of complicated systems of belief like racism and colonialism, but movies nevertheless tend to present the past in such a way to simplify what seems unfathomable to modern audiences. Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” lies among these crisp-edged period pieces and stands out as one of the better of the bunch.

The film succeeds at depicting high-level concepts of segregation and prejudice that are still relevant today. Yet it also works when pinpointing the ethos of a specific moment in the late 1940s where the sun was setting on the empire in which the sun never sets. British-born Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) falls head over heels for African tribal king Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who studied in London to prepare himself to assume the throne in Botswana.

The grumblings from her ardently colonialist father could sufficiently set in motion the drama of an entire film altogether. But don’t worry, “A United Kingdom” charts the vast geopolitical complications arising from their marriage. What begins as mere disruption in a community presents an opportunity for the waning British powers to destabilize an entire region.

Guy Hibbert’s script front-loads the film’s most explosive moments – a refreshing change of pace. A fiery speech from Seretse in defense of his wife feels like the climactic moment of a more conventional story, but Hibbert situates it towards the beginning. The shocking segregation of blacks in their own country also appears primarily at the outset. These micro-level moments are just drops in the bucket of a larger narrative, one whose ever-expanding scope consumes “A United Kingdom.” Seeing how far those ripples extend proves the most fascinating component of Ruth and Seretse’s history, although little moments such as Ruth’s limp imitation of Queen Elizabeth’s wave to appear more regal to Botswanans delight along the way. B2halfstars

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REVIEW: Belle

9 08 2014

“Costume design porn” (if that’s not a phrase yet, I call dibs on the trademark) rarely satisfies for me, but I’ll admit, “Belle” came as a pleasant surprise.  Amma Asante’s 18th-century set period piece focuses far less on the threads and refreshingly more on social values of the period in England.  And for once, I felt like I should care far more about what the characters had to say than what they wore.

Perhaps my interest in the film’s subject came from having visited Kenwood House in London, the film’s setting.  I spent one beautifully foggy morning exploring the newly refurbished historical site while it was nearly empty, and one particularly kind docent took the time to explain the history behind Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of an English aristocrat.  Dido is brought up just like any other legitimate child by her aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle (Tom Wilkinson), who is tasked with deciding a landmark case of the rights of slaves.

Ironically, her cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) has far more power and standing in British society … yet far less of a dowry to offer suitors.  A rivalry develops between the two that feels completely believable, and the tension propels “Belle” throughout some dull moments in the middle of the film.

Assante’s film has its heart in the right place, promoting causes like racial equality and the rights of women as self-sufficient individuals.  She gets a little self-righteous and preachy at times, but at least these struggles ground the world in reality as opposed to the first-world problems that seem to occupy most films of this genre.  Sadly enough, these are battles still being fought, and “Belle” reminds us that we’ve still got some distance to go even though we’ve progressed from the times being covered in the movie.  B2halfstars