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A United Kingdom
Jerry Whyte has mixed feelings about Amma Ashante's engaging, often witty, delightfully pretty period drama A UNITED KINGDOM, which opened the London Film Festival last night. He has a few about film festivals too.
 

The Edinburgh International Film Festival, the world's longest continuously running film festival, celebrated its 70th anniversary earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, it was bookended by two Scottish films: the Opening Night Gala screening of Jason Connery's Tommy's Honour(a celebration of golf, the global sport established in Scotland) and the Closing Night Gala screening of Gilles MacKinnon's remake of the Alexander 'Sandy' MacKendrick's Whisky Galore! (a celebration of Scottish resistance to English hegemony and Scotland's most internationally appreciated export).

The 60th edition of that no less cherished Johnny-come-lately, the London Film Festival, began last night. Its official launch, though, took place, one morning a few weeks ago, at the vast Odeon, Leicester Square. Present on that occasion were two talented British directors: Amma Ashanti, whose A United Kingdom opened the LFF last night; and Ben Wheatley, whose High Rise occupied a Festival Gala slot at last year's LFF and whose Free Fire will close this year's London Film Festival in nine days time. The selection of those four films locates the respective festivals within the local.

The EIFF was established by two Scottish individuals whose pioneering work places them in the front rank of the most influential figures of world cinema. Forsyth Hardy founded the Edinburgh Film Guild (itself the world's oldest continuously running film society and the fertile soil from which the EIFF grew), in 1930, and also helped establish the British Film Institute and the Scottish Film Council. His compatriot John Grierson was, of course, the founding father of both the British Documentary Movement and National Film Board of Canada. Without them the London Film Festival might have been even slower getting off the ground. Their histories are emblematic of the conjuncture of the local and global that typifies 'the film festival circuit' - often characterized as a cohesive global network, what Thomas Elsaesser has called 'a kind of parliament of national cinemas'. The LFF is often called 'the festival of festivals', reflecting its internationalist orientation and cinematic outreach function.

I mention the EIFF, Hardy and Grierson not only tip my cap to them but also to suggest that festivals are sites of competing notions of nationhood as much as refractors in the global circulation of film. They promote national film cultures while forging international reputations. They operate within regional and globalized service and tourist economies.  Each 'A-list' festival positions itself and its host city against other festivals and world cities. Festivals reflect the tension between the local and the global, between assertive regional identities and what Janet Harbord has called 'the de-territorialising effects of multinational capitalism'. As Tom Nairn once said: 'Nationalism has always been a response to globalization – the particular brought to life both by and against the universal'.

There's a problem lurking here though: although festivals nominally open up democratic debate they can also foreclose it. The EIFF occurred as the referendum on European membership was taking place but there was no space for consideration of it within the festival itself. As England, Northern Ireland and Wales voted to withdraw from Europe, Scotland largely looked on aghast. It looked on at EIFF too, which provided no forum for discussion, spontaneous or otherwise, of that most pressing of matter of public concern. That there was no space allocated at the EIFF to that vital background context was especially shocking given it is possible, even likely that the referendum result will lead to another referendum on Scottish independence (within Europe), hasten the collapse of the United Kingdom and, perhaps, even precipitate the collapse of the European Union. Festivals, then, raise troubling questions about their own efficacy as forums for democratic debate.

Audiences attend festivals partly to see the world in order to better understand it but find themselves forced into positions of passivity, even or especially at panel events. Festivals offer engagement with the global but can divest audiences of agency; they are rooted in the local but can, paradoxically, elide local (national) realities. Is it too much to ask festivals to develop a more interactive relationship with the wider world? Do we demand the moon on a stick in asking for extramural public events organised around films and the ideas they raise? It seems so. Are festival organizers worried that nobody would turn up if public screenings (of, say A United Kingdom) were dovetailed with public debates (on, say, racism and imperialism)?

As things stand, festivals too readily replicate comfortable and comforting conventions of viewing and place undue emphasis on celebrity, red carpentry, and PR. They will only succeed, again, as effective forums or as counterfoils to mainstream cinema if the economic and PR functions of festival are faced down, delimited or, at minimum, opened up to public scrutiny; if something of the anarchic founding spirit of film societies like the Edinburgh Film Guild are revivified; and if a more dynamic, democratic approach is taken to their internal structure and ways of organising.  

Of course the outside world often appears, uninvited, at festivals to proclaim itself and demand its right to be heard. The literature and livery for this year's LFF is black. For the EIFF, it was bright orange. That generated feelings of discomfort, even outrage among those who regard it as the colour of Loyalist lodges, Presbyterian reaction and imperial arrogance. The opening film of last year's LFF, Suffragette, also provided a focal point for controversy when Sisters Uncut invaded the red carpet to remind us that that feminism, thank heaven, is alive and kicking. The opening and closing films of this year's EIFF, too, generated controversy. No smoke bombs were ignited but the above-mentioned films were widely felt to represent an example of twee kilt-and-caber 'tartanry' conceived with overseas markets in mind, a Celtic form of Heritage.

Amma Ashante's stylish and engaging period drama A United Kingdom is unlikely to ruffle many feathers. It should please those who object to orange and still refer to the union jack as 'the butcher's apron', being a forthright rebuke to British imperialism, but will offend few apologists of Empire, being a wholesome, heartfelt and heartwarming tale of requited, interracial love with more heart and soul than snap and bite. Intractable racists, one would assume, are unlikely ever to see it. LFF Director Claire Stewart, while rightly raising questions of inclusion and diversity, says she hopes Ashante's film 'enables us to establish a talking point that carries throughout the festival.' We hope so too.

A United Kingdom, like Ashante's earlier, equally edifying and pretty period piece Belle (2013), suggests you catch more flies with honey. Fiction features like Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation and documentaries such as Ava DuVeryney's The 13th, meanwhile, insist you achieve more by going for the throat. Parker's impatiently awaited film opens with the words of Thomas Jefferson: 'I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just'. I tremble for mine when I reflect that this is the first film by a Black director ever to open the London Film Festival, that in Padstow, Cornwall they still celebrate 'Darkie Day' by painting their faces black and singing 'folk songs' about 'niggers', and so on. Yeah gods, it's been a long time coming all right. If Ashanti's film is more important than it should be, it strengthens the case for a spoonful of sugar – a case neatly made by Preston Sturges in Sullivan's Travels (1941) and, most spectacularly, by Mervyn LeRoy in Gold Diggers of 1933.

Adapted from Susan Williams' (no relation) 2006 book, Colour Bar, A United Kingdom retells the true story of the post-war marriage of Ruth Williams, a middle-class underwriter's clerk (later Lady Ruth Kwama), and Seretse Khama, heir apparent to a tribal fiefdom in Bechuanaland (later, after independence in 1966, President of Botswana and Knight of the Realm). Ruth (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse (David Oyelowo) meet at a London Missionary Society dance in 1947 and immediately fall in love. Her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst), in keeping with that generation's casual racism, turns her out of the house; his Uncle, Tschekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), no less brutally attempts to bar him from the succession. Of course we're all on their side from beginning to end. No nuance is allowed, no character flaws are present, no dissent is permitted.

When Ruth and Seretse decide to marry, the Colonial Office and its mandarins intercede to stop them in their tracks. They marry anyway - in a hurry, at a Registry Office, and leave immediately for Africa. Once there, they are swept up in local and international politics. Having introduced the policy of apartheid in 1948, South Africa opposes their union and brings pressure to bear on the British State by threatening to deny it access to the uranium needed to develop atomic weapons and essential gold reserves. Seretse's Uncle and his tribe (the Bangwato) are initially no more supportive than Ruth's father. The couple are painfully separated. Seretese is trapped in exile in London while Ruth is forced to remain in Africa. They never falter or lose faith in one another and their steadfast love. They fight prejudice, loneliness, official obfuscation and lies with calm courage, restrained anger and defiant dignity.

David Oyelowo, as Seretse, and Rosamund Pike, as Ruth, are perfectly cast and equally excellent, unfortunately, they aren't given very much to work with. Ruth Williams was a remarkable, remarkably spiky woman. Pike is asked to play her as a wide-eyed suburban hausfrau. An actor capable of playing Dr. King (in Selma), too, deserved better from a script that never fully or fruitfully stretches his talents. If the film's softly-softly approach understandably echoes that of the couple at its warm heart (Ruth was a Tory, Sir Seratse favoured conciliation over confrontation, it's impossible to justify its suggestion that their love all but defeated Apartheid and ushered in a golden age of pan-African democracy.

There are deft moments of wit in the film, such as the one when Ruth's sister, Muriel (Downtown Abbey actress Laura Carmichael) reads Ruth's invitation to the dance and enthusiastically notes that Seretse says she can bring her sister along as chaperone if she likes; at which point Ruth flatly says, 'But I wouldn't like'. And, as one would expect from a period drama with high production values and a huge budget, the historical detailing is as flawless as the acting is spotless. Susan Williams's involvement during the production process can only have helped in this respect. Unfortunately, Guy Hibbert's deadening script flattens all.

In Belle, white liberal lawyers and Lord Mansfield win the day; here Tony Benn and Fenner Brockway do; in Belle, justice is seen to be done by the Inns of Court; here, by tribal courts, with Sertse filling in for Atticus Finch, Juror 8, and Mr Washington. There is no sense, in either film, that political struggle might have played its part. Khama's anti-colonial friends are silenced, despite this being 1947, the year the Attlee government 'granted' India independence, despite the wind of change being obvious in African air. The harsh realities of economic exploitation are largely elided, though passing reference is made to the way predatory Western powers attempted to muscle in on Botswana's diamond reserves. Conflicts of interest are acted out between love's young dream and cardboard-cut-out colonialists. Churchill (whose white-supremacist views are on the record) is let off lightly; so is Clem Attlee (who later admitted this wasn't his finest hour), and the Conservatives, we are led to believe, were as responsible for dismantling Empire as the establishment defying couple we learn about. This is a riveting, richly symbolic story, beautifully and movingly told. Sadly, some of the tears that well up as one watches are unwelcome: those caused by the sight of history being taken for a ride and the memory of Africans who fought for their liberties being denied. There is also an underpinning sadness that the urgent questions the film raises are left behind in the cinema as audiences push out into the night.

 


United Kindom screened at the 60th BFI London Film Festival on the following dates:

Wednesday 05 October 2016 19:00
Odeon Leicester Square (Opening Night Gala)

Wednesday 05 October 2016 19:45
Vue West End Cinema, Screen 7

Thursday 06 October 2016 11:30
Odeon Leicester Square

There will be a further screening on Tuesday 11 October 2016 21:00 at the Curzon Mayfair Cinema, Screen 1, but we have been informed that this has already sold out.

The film will go on national release in the UK on 25 November 2016, courtesy of Pathe.

The 60th BFI London Film Festival runs from 5th to 16th October 2016.
For further information on the films being screened and to buy tickets for showings, head here:
https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/

The 60th BFI London Film Festival
A United Kingdom

USA | UK | Czech Republic 2016
111 mins
directed by
Amma Asante
produced by
Brunson Green
Peter Heslop
Charlie Mason
Rick McCallum
Justin Moore-Lewy
David Oyelowo
written by
Guy Hibbert
cinematography
Sam McCurdy
editing
Jonathan Amos
music
Patrick Doyle
production design
Simon Bowles
starring
Rosamund Pike
Tom Felton
David Oyelowo
Laura Carmichael
Jack Davenport
Charlotte Hope
Jessica Oyelowo
Jack Lowden
Nicholas Lyndhurst
UK distributor
Pathe Productions Ltd
UK release date
25 November 2016
review posted
6 October 2016

See all of Jerry Whyte's reviews