A United Kingdom (2017) Blu-ray Review: Strong Performances Lift Film Above Biopic Cliches

Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom has the feel of something that just missed the window for Oscar consideration and was dropped into limited release in February of this year, since the studio couldn’t think of any other month to put it in. It’s a pristine-looking picture that carries the textbook moments of a historical biopic, and never misses a beat in making sure it has all the things it needs in order to make a successful, crowd-pleasing feature. A grandiose score, beautiful scenery, and big speeches are all featured here.

By now, the formula is overdone, and, in most cases, it becomes tedious when I have to watch something that follows a conventional setup and doesn’t dare break away from it. But, to be absolutely honest, A United Kingdom didn’t frustrate me as much as I thought it would. It may play things safely, but I couldn’t look away from it as the story was progressing.

Taking place in 1947, Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is temporarily residing in Britain, studying for the day when he will eventually become the king of Bechuanaland, what’s now known as Botswana. While there, he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). They fall in love, and he proposes to her. With their marriage, that would make her the new queen of Bechuanaland, and this does not set well with the people of Britain, Seretse’s family, and many others. The British government goes as far as to having Seretse exiled from returning to his homeland, and he has to fight in order to get back to his wife and become the king of Bechuanaland.

Sure, A United Kingdom doesn’t offer much groundbreaking in terms of storytelling, and the British government officials Seretse and Ruth deal with are villainous caricatures. You have people like Jack Davenport and Tom Felton occupying these roles, and they’re fine with what they’re given, but it’s almost too obvious that they are the bad guys. I kind of wanted more out of these two.

What really kept me interested in A United Kingdom were the performances of Oyelowo and Pike. Oyelowo, especially, has a strong screen presence, and delivers the movie’s biggest, most rousing moments with an earnest conviction. Pike is sweet and works better in the smaller moments of the movie. The chemistry they share together is impeccable, even when the movie resorts to routine procedures when explaining what happens to the characters.

Asante filmed A United Kingdom in Botswana, making it the first feature film to be shot in the country ever, as indicated in one of the special features of the Blu-ray. She captures the beauty of Botswana perfectly with overhead shots and close-ups of the country and the people that occupy it. There’s no denying that each scene is rich in color and atmosphere.

The Blu-ray of A United Kingdom is able to capture the same exquisite imagery well as when the movie was released to theaters earlier this year. The special features are all interviews with the cast and crew about the making of the film and how they felt a story like this was important to tell today. There’s also a segment in which select people are interviewed at the opening night premiere at the London Film Festival, and someone mentions how the movie was the first female-directed feature to open the event.

While I wish A United Kingdom took more risks in the re-telling of Sertese and Ruth’s journey, Asante’s film is still an enjoyable and somewhat intriguing effort. It’s worth checking out for those who have a keen interest in true stories.

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David Wangberg

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