It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.
A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.
In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.
The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.
But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.
The Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso has developed a reputation for festival films in the ‘slow cinema’ mode. This means that his films are shown by leading festivals but struggle to get cinema releases in many territories. Jauja (his fifth feature) is a slightly different proposition since it stars the internationally-known Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen (who is also credited as one of the producers and the music composer on the film). Perhaps because of this, Alonso has managed to attract funding and support from many sources including the US, Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The film won the FIPRESCI critics prize at Cannes and two other international awards and certainly in the UK it has had a higher profile on release than the director’s earlier films.
Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish military engineer in the late 19th century who is assisting the Argentinian Army in their genocidal campaign to survey and ‘clear’ the ‘jungle’ – the desolate area in Patagonia sparsely populated by indigenous peoples. (The English word ‘jungle’ has connotations of tropical rainforest but its original Sanskrit/Hindi meaning is ‘arid wasteland’ – precisely describing parts of Patagonia.) He has with him his teenage daughter. It isn’t explained why she is there and her presence is disturbing for some of the soldiers. Almost inevitably she starts a relationship with one of them and the couple then run away from the camp. Forced to go looking for them, Mortensen’s character makes his own journey into the unknown.
‘Jauja’ refers to a magical place and at the beginning of the film a title explains this. In colonial ‘Latin America’ it became associated with similar concepts such as ‘El Dorado’. In this instance it seems to me that it refers to what might be termed the fantasy at the heart of the colonial melodrama. In some ways this film reminded me of Tabu, the Portuguese film which so captivated me in 2012. The two films aren’t necessarily the same in style, but there are some parallels about colonialism and both employ a time shift so we see characters in the present with links to the colonial past. In Jauja the link is not really explained but Viilbjørk Malling Agger, who plays Dinesen’s daughter, also plays a young woman in a country house in modern Denmark. Without spoiling the ‘plot’, I’ll simply note here that the Captain’s search for his daughter takes him to some odd places and some strange experiences. There are two linking motifs between the two time periods – a dog and a toy soldier.
The search for a daughter (common I understand to several of Alonso’s stories) in the context of a ‘hostile territory’ in the 19th century brings to mind John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in which John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran searching for his niece presumed abducted by Comanche raiders. Alonso selected the Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for his work with Aki Kaurismäki) to shoot Jauja and Salminen is quoted as seeking a John Ford look for this quasi-Western. He appears to have come across the idea of an Academy (1.33:1) frame with rounded edges during post production and then imposed it on the 1.85:1 footage. The effect works particularly well because of the deep-focus compositions which stretch the gaze into the far distance – proving that barren spaces can be captured in depth as well as in the breadth of a CinemaScope image (see the article and interview with Mortensen by Mar Diestro-Dópido in Sight and Sound May 2015 plus the review of the film by Adrian Martin for more detail on this). The Academy framings also act as a reminder of Kelly Reichardt’s feminist revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).
I enjoyed Jauja and I found the various aesthetic devices and ideas about the colonial (mis)adventure both interesting and stimulating. I think the Danish connection came about because of the multilingual Mortensen’s interest in the script. Alonso and his co-writer Fabian Casas welcomed a different ‘voice’/language that would be ‘strange’ in an Argentinian film (i.e. not Spanish/French/Italian or English). The colonial past of Denmark is not so widely known as that of other European nations but it is an important element in Danish culture. Besides Greenland, the Faroes and Iceland, Denmark also possessed widely scattered small territories in the Caribbean and India and participated in the slave trade. Dinesen stands in for the European colonial adventurer while the Argentinians themselves are like the ‘settlers’ in North America and Australia who set out to eradicate indigenous peoples. The Argentinian Army officer in the film refers to ‘coconut heads’ – a made up name that Alonso thought would be strange but “not offensive” (see the interview in Sight and Sound). It sounds pretty offensive to me and I suspect to many others. Perhaps as the Luis Suarez racism charge suggests, these issues are rather differently dealt with in the Southern part of South America (i.e. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay)?
So, what does the wider release mean for this ‘slow cinema’ film? I suspect that there has been a fair amount of bewilderment amongst the more mainstream arthouse audience. For my part I enjoyed the chance to gaze on the tableaux set up by Alonso and Salminen and to use the time to think about some of the issues. But I was aware that at the end of a long working day I was prone to losing concentration and potentially falling asleep. On the other hand, a big screen in a darkened cinema auditorium is also far more likely to hold my attention over the whole film than a small screen in my living room – when it is so easy to pause or switch off a DVD. Festival films are meant to be seen in cinemas, even if many critics now watch them on much smaller screens. I also have Alonso’s Liverpool (2008) on disc – I wonder how that will work out?