There’s a common problem with biopics and historical dramas of trying to do too much. It’s what makes a biopic feel overstuffed and shallow at the same time—there’s a lot of information being imparted, but the constant stream of exposition means less time devoted to story and character. This is why so many biopics are so forgettable—be honest, do you remember anything from The Theory of Everything?—and it’s a problem that Amma Asante’s new film, A United Kingdom, is not able to solve either.
The film begins in 1947 when a London office worker, Ruth (Rosamund Pike), meets Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). He’s worldly, well-spoken, and a jazz aficionado who is also black. She is white, and an office worker—there’s not a lot to say about Ruth because her defining characteristic is “supportive”. Pike gets a couple scenes where Ruth uses her wits to turn expectations against her persecutors, but those relatively brief segments aren’t enough to overcome her characterization as “preternaturally supportive” and nothing else.
Asante previously adapted Belle, a much better film than A United Kingdom, which feels more conventional and accessible thand Belle is. Like Belle, though, Kingdom has stunning visuals and Asante’s eye for period detail is unfailing. This is a great looking film, and Asante has established herself as a purveyor of tasteful, detailed historical dramas and biopics, especially if the story revolves around a Great Man delivering stirring speeches.
Which Kingdom has in spades. In the early portion of the movie it seems like the story will focus on Ruth and her struggle to integrate into African tribal society after marrying Seretse, the heir to the throne of Buechaland (present-day Botswana). But in the second half Ruth fades into the background as the movie becomes more about Seretse’s political maneuvers to restore his right to the crown and control mining in his country, and Ruth’s role is mostly her having children and begging Seretse to come home after he’s banished while abroad.
Pike and Oyelowo are as good as you’d expect, though Ruth really doesn’t get to do a whole lot post-marriage and Oyelowo feels a little like he’s recycling his Martin Luther King, Jr. performance. But their chemistry is convincing enough to sell their romance, though it’s handled in a perfunctory manner, with their courtship reduced to a montage. If that’s all you’re going to invest in it, why bother with that part of the story anyway?
The most interesting stuff in Kingdom is not the romance between Ruth and Seretse, it’s the political maneuvering between Seretse and the British government. Jack Davenport stars as Sir Alistair Canning, an English politician trying to force Ruth and Seretse to divorce in order to preserve diplomatic relations with South Africa, which has just instituted apartheid; and Tom Felton appears as the Nazi villain in an Indiana Jones movie. Ruth and Seretse both come across as stronger characters when they’re trying to out-think the government, and the film does a good job of laying out the demeaning and cruel nature of imperialism, and capturing Britain on the cusp of losing its empire.
A United Kingdom isn’t bad—it’s too well put together for that—but it is boring and overwrought. Ruth and Seretse are certainly inspirational for their toughness and certainty, but those elements get diluted by too much story packed into the run time, which results in the movie feeling like your average overstuffed biopic.