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.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant

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Good Ol’ Freda


Best. Job. Ever.

Best. Job. Ever.

(2013) Documentary (Magnet) Freda Kelly, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, Tony Barrow, Billy Kinsley, Billy Hatton, Elsie Starkey, Louise Harrison, Harold Hargreaves “Harry” Harrison, Maureen Tigrett, Brian Epstein. Directed by Ryan White

Most of us have a sense of the Beatles largely through the many biographies – most of which are written by outsiders – or through media accounts of the group. Few in their inner circle have stepped forward to give their accounts of Beatlemania.

Freda Kelly was a 17 year old devotee of the band who worked in a secretarial pool in Liverpool and would see the band play at the Cavern Club during their lunch hours. She got to know the boys in the band who would often give her lifts home when she would go to see them in the evening hours. When Brian Epstein took over the management of the band, he knew that they would need help in the office and asked Freda if she was up to the task. She would work this job until the band broke up, as well as running their fan club which was how many of the band’s fans got to know her name.

She rarely spoke of her time managing the fan club or the secretarial needs of the Fab Four even to her own children. Although she has scrapbooks and old fan club magazines, much of the memorabilia that she collected over the years she gave to the fans. Kelly, who began as a fan herself and continued to be after the demise of the band, empathized with them and felt a responsibility to the fans as well as to the band.

In this documentary, she talks about her time with the band but true to form she’s reticent to dish any dirt. Fiercely loyal, she feels bound to keep private those things that are personal about the band even though forty years have passed and half the members have passed on. There’s something to be said for that.

Freda has a certain charming guilelessness about her. She never sought the spotlight nor is she really seeking it out now. She felt that she wanted to get her story out so that her grandchildren would know what she did, motivated by the untimely death of her eldest son. In fact, her surviving daughter says on camera that she never really spoke about her time with the band when they were growing up and even today her friends are shocked to discover that she once worked with the Beatles.

She certainly hasn’t profited by her time with the band, although she might have with a tell-all book as some have done in the past. She’s a working class girl from a working class town who has just gone on about things. She isn’t particularly charismatic which might be the secret to her anonymity and may have saved her from the savage side of that spotlight.

Some critics have groused about the lack of focus on the Beatles but this isn’t about them. It is about living with them, just out of the limelight but certainly affected by it. The documentary has a lot of Freda’s personal photos of her with the band, or her at the office. We get a bit of a view as to what it took to run the empire but mostly through the days of Beatlemania – the later days when the band got into drugs, Eastern religion and psychedelia and began to implode are pretty much glossed over. Some may well find that disingenuous.

Still, you can’t help get a warm glow of nostalgia in your bones leaving the theater, particularly if you lived through the era or were simply a Beatles fan. Me, I’m both so I have to say that Good Ol’ Freda might get a bit more of a pass from my sort than it might from younger critics. After all, I’m a fan just like Freda Kelly was – perhaps not to the extent that I would have asked for a lock of Paul’s hair or a bit of John’s shirt, or asked Ringo to sleep on a pillowcase and have it returned to me. There’s a fine line between fandom and obsession after all. Still, I loved the band and their music made up the soundtrack of my life to a large extent, and one has to recognize the band’s importance in pop culture and music in general even if one is a snot-nosed young critic. Or a starry-eyed old one.

REASONS TO GO: A good way for people of a certain age to get the warm fuzzies. Some priceless behind-the-scenes pics and anecdotes.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of smoking and a few sexual and drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title comes from the band’s 1963 Christmas message in which they namecheck their secretary and fan club president (the message is played at the beginning of the film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imagine: John Lennon

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Philomena