‘A United Kingdom’ Review: David Oyelowo Drama Is a Ho-Hum Crowd-Pleaser

Toronto 2016: Amma Asante’s real-life story of an interracial marriage can be stirring, but it’s also very old-fashioned

A United Kingdom
Courtesy of TIFF

This review was first posted after “A United Kingdom” screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.

Well-meaning, socially conscious dramas are a staple at every Toronto International Film Festival. In these parts, and through the rest of awards season, the condescending term for them is “Oscar bait.”

“A United Kingdom,” the new film from “Belle” director Amma Asante, will probably be saddled with that label more than any other film that has played at TIFF so far this year — and while that might be an unfair reduction of a love story of some consequence, it’s not an inaccurate one.

On a day that saw bold films like “Nocturnal Animals,” “Arrival” and “The Birth of a Nation” screen in Toronto, “A United Kingdom” felt old hat, not fresh.

In a bit of movie-business synchronicity, the film is one of two different dramas that will deal with interracial marriages this fall, with the other being Jeff Nichols‘ “Loving,” which premiered in Cannes and is also playing at TIFF.

That film dealt with the charged environment of race relations in the American South during the 1950s and ’60s, and told its story in the quietest, subtlest way imaginable; though its lead characters went to court and set a hugely important precedent, their point of view was simply that they wanted to live their lives out of the spotlight.

“A United Kingdom” is a dramatically different film, with characters who never have the option of anonymity. David Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a real-life Botswana prince who helped secure the former British protectorate’s independence while controversially married to a white Englishwoman, played by Rosamund Pike.

The marriage meets with resistance from his own tribe, but more notably from the British government, which is wary of offending apartheid-era South Africa, on which it depends for gold and uranium.

Where Jeff Nichols‘ film relies on understatement and people who don’t say much, “A United Kingdom” is big and old-fashioned, full of stirring speeches and heart-warming moments.

That’s not necessarily bad, mind you — as he showed in “Selma,” Oyelowo is pretty great at delivering stirring speeches, and his performance here is typically powerful. And Pike, as a woman who doesn’t know what she’s getting into but has the inner reservoirs of strength to rise to the occasion, knows how to navigate a role that’s significantly less complex and nuanced than, say, “Gone Girl,” in the process creating a woman to root for.

The movie as a whole is distinctly crowd-pleasing; it received a rousing ovation at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday evening, and figures to be a favorite for an audience that likes beautifully old-school filmmaking.

But the beats are too predictable — and even though the film tells a story we may not have known until now, the storytelling is too familiar. From the beginning, the audience knows that love will win out and the music will swell and the endings will be happy.

The formula works, but not well enough to make the film stand out at TIFF or beyond.