A United Kingdom

A royal embrace.

(2016) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Zackary Momoh, Nicholas Rowe, Billy Boyle, Kevin Hand, Raymond Burnet, Sofia Fisher. Directed by Amma Assante


We often use fairy tales as a means of fantasizing about how our lives could be better; we could marry royalty, for example. However unless one is already of royal blood, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. It does, however, sometimes actually happen.

Ruth Williams (Pike) is a typist in the post-war London of 1947. While the city is still rebuilding after the Blitz, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to get better. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of things to do. Her sister Muriel (Carmichael) invites her to a dance given by the Missionary Society she belongs to and Ruth, a little bit reluctant at first, knows that at least she’ll get an opportunity to dance which is one of her favorite pastimes.

Also at this dance is Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) who is in the last months of studying for his law degree. He is from the tiny British protectorate of Bechuanaland (the present-day Botswana). He has a liking for jazz and like Ruth, he loves to dance. The two bond over these likes and Ruth’s charm as she apologizes for the British musicians’ watered down version of swing.

The two fall deeply in love and within a year Seretse knows she is The One. But it is 1947 and interracial marriages while not strictly illegal Just Aren’t Done. That Ruth is marrying a black man causes her father to refuse to speak to her for many years. There is another added twist however; Seretse is the King of Bechuanaland whose Uncle Tshekedi (Kunene) has been ruling there as regent while Seretse went to England to learn how to improve his poverty-stricken country. It is traditional that he must marry someone from his tribe who will act as Mother to the people, supervising their spiritual well-being. Tshekedi is certain that the tribe will never accept a white ruler particularly since the British treat them with at best condescension or at worst with outright contempt.

The couple doesn’t only have opposition from the inside. The protectorate is bordered by Rhodesia on one side and South Africa on another at a time when South Africa is implementing their apartheid policy. England needs the resources from their wartime ally to remain competitive in the Cold War – much of their Uranium comes from South Africa – so they are especially sensitive to that country’s complaints.

As Great Britain rules the territory, they forbid the union. When Ruth and Seretse defy them, Seretse is exiled from his homeland. While Ruth is pregnant she is alone in a country where she is not particularly loved and does not speak the language, Seretse whips up international indignation and condemnation against Britain’s heartless move. Will he be able to rule the country he loves or give up the woman he loves in order to do that?

This comes to us from Assante who previously directed the critically acclaimed Belle. She doesn’t have quite the touch she exhibited there this time; the movie overall comes off a little bit flat, although I must confess that Da Queen liked it a lot more than I did. That doesn’t mean I think this is a terrible movie however; let’s just say she thinks it’s a great movie and I think it’s a really good one.

First and foremost you have to start with the performances of Oyelowo (I’m referring to David here as there are two Oyelowos in the movie; his real life wife Jessica plays the snarky wife of one of the snarky British diplomats) and Pike. The two are two of the best actors in the UK at the moment and Oyelowo, who was denied an Oscar nomination that he should have gotten for Selma, is dominant here as Seretse. He is regal and smart like the real Seretse Khama, carrying himself with dignity and poise throughout a trying ordeal. Pike also has that working class aspect of her, a bright sunny English rose who is beautiful and far stronger than she seems. The one problem that I had is that the relationship between the two doesn’t feel real to me, at least not authentic.

Botswana has a distinct beauty to it, the kind that is easy to love but hard to endure. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy captures that nicely, giving us raw vistas and compelling close-ups. We also get a sense of Colonial Africa particularly in how the British treat the native culture with thorough disdain. While I’m sure that there were British colonists who loved the country equally and respected the culture that had been established there, none of them make an appearance in this movie.

Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth are both revered in Botswana today (their eldest son is President of that country as of this writing). Their story is less known outside of their home country or even in Ruth’s home country these days. It’s a good thing that their story is being told and the importance of their stand for justice – and for love – is clear. Perhaps this isn’t the movie they deserve but it’s a good one nonetheless

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Oyelowo and Pike are exemplary. The exterior shots of Botswana are truly lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: I might have wished for a little less Hollywood and a little more Botswana. The love story feels a bit more pedestrian than it should have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including some racial slurs and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home that is used as the house that Ruth and Seretse live in is the one they actually lived in; also the hospital where Ruth actually gave birth is used for filming the birth scene here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant


Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

(IFC) Timothy Spall, Julie Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, Michael Norton, Tobias Menzies, Clive Francis, Claire Keelan. Directed by Adrian Shergold.

An eye for an eye is what the Old Testament recommends in terms of justice. For two thousand years, Western justice has more or less followed this dictate, particularly when it comes to capital crimes. That begs the question; how are the ones charged with exacting judicial vengeance affected by it?

Albert Pierrepoint (Spall) is a grocer in Depression-era Britain. Somewhat shy, he romances Annie (Stevenson), a clerk at a nearby shop and eventually marries her. Times are hard and he has applied to the British Home Office for a position as hangman in order to bring in some extra income. This isn’t a decision come to lightly – he has several other members of the family who have performed this office. As it turns out, Pierrepoint is remarkably efficient, able to move prisoners from cell to noose to corpse in less than a minute. He quickly becomes one of the most sought-after hangmen in Britain because of it.

This efficiency catches the eye of Field Marshall Montgomery (Francis), who is looking for someone to dispense British justice to Nazi war criminals convicted at Nuremberg. Pierrepoint is enlisted and is flown to Germany, where he is given a somewhat deferential Army assistant (Menzies) to help him with the task of executing dozens of Nazis. When he returns home, he discovers that the press has discovered his identity and he is hailed as a national hero, to his amazement.

With the income from his work in Germany he is able to buy a pub and leave the grocery business. At his pub, he meets James “Tish” Corbett (Marsan), a garrulous man who is able to bring Pierrepoint (who he calls “Tosh”) out of his shell. The two often sing duets at the piano, and they become close friends. Tish, who is separated from his wife, has taken up with a mistress (Keelan) who often derides him publically. While Pierrepoint and his wife are less than enthralled with the mistress, they take solace in having a friend who doesn’t treat him like a pariah for his ghoulish sideline.

As the years pass, so do British attitudes towards capital punishment. Once feted as a national hero, now Pierrepoint is reviled as a murderer. At first, Pierrepoint is puzzled and troubled by this change of attitude. However, his own attitude is called into question when he finds his friend Tish in his docket awaiting execution.

Based on a true story of Britain’s most notorious executioner, the film is rather matter-of-fact and even clinical about the executions that Pierrepoint performs. Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies, plays Pierrepoint as a meticulous, almost business-like executioner, well-versed in the physics of hanging and able to tell from height and weight exactly how to set the noose in order to kill the convict cleanly and quickly. His performance is exemplary and reminds us that he is one of Britain’s finest actors with a background in Shakespeare and Mike Leigh films before coming to the Potter universe.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see Stevenson, who I became a big fan of in Truly Madly Deeply back onscreen. She often plays a lot of thankless roles and here she makes good use of her onscreen time as Pierrepoint’s supportive wife, who while aware of his sideline, rarely discusses it with him until it becomes an elephant in the room, leading to one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.

Plainly, the filmmakers have an opinion on capital punishment but this is less about the merits of the death penalty and more on how it affects those who carry it out. Pierrepoint is far from a deranged psychopath; he is a civil servant who does his job efficiently and well. The fact that he, his wife and his friend are all so ordinary and average is what gives the movie its odd poignancy.

WHY RENT THIS: Spall performs marvelously in a role that is deceptively bland. Interesting presentation on how capital punishment affects the executioners.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The clinical portrayal of hangings might be disturbing to sensitive viewers. The ordinariness of the characters can make for occasional moments of boredom.

FAMILY VALUES: The above-mentioned executions are not for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title is a bit misleading. Although Pierrepoint retired in 1964, executions by hanging continued to take place in Britain until 1965.