A United Kingdom

Director: Amma Asante (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

The sincerity of this solid historical drama is undermined by the overly flattering portrayal of its subjects, the real life mixed race rulers of Beuchanaland, Seretse and Ruth Khama.

As played by Brit actors David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, they are paragons of quiet dignity and determination. Oyelowo is impressively impassioned as the law student turned politician who believes in equality, inclusion and unity. However, with Pike’s accent as well cut as her cheekbones, the supposedly middle class Ruth frequently comes across as far more regal than her royal husband.

As they fight to bring independence to what is today Botswana, the devoted couple face the considerable forces of colonialism, exploitation, prejudice, propaganda and ridiculous ceremonial pomp. Together they battle the Empire, their own citizens, his disapproving family and piratical American mining corporations.

Racially segregated in practice but not in law, the then British protectorate of Bechuanaland was one of the one of worlds poorest countries. It suffered malaria, malnutrition, drought and poverty.

The Khama’s marriage is considered by the Empire to be inflammatory at a time when neighbouring South Africa is instigating apartheid. And stability is South Africa is paramount to the Empire, the UK’s gold supplies are dependent on it.

Styled the black king and white queen by the British press, the Khamas are not prepared to be pawns in the Empire’s game of global politics. Representing the Empire is Jack Davenport‘s wonderfully oily Sir Alistair Canning. Jack Lowden appears as Tony Benn MP. True to form, the self-styled conscience of the parliamentary Labour party spends his time battling his own side.

A companion piece to her period piece Belle (2014), Asante fashions her material with deft confidence and produces an engaging and handsome work. The opening scene is a joy of character and thematic economy. We witness Seretse taking part in a university boxing match. He is shown to be a courageous but naive fighter who is defeated at the hands of treacherous former public school boys.

London is believably stuffy and smog-filled, contrasting well with the bright open and faint optimism of Bechuanaland. There is a smooth dexterity in the handling of scenes which alternate between the intimate and the epic.

However the story struggles against the inertia of reality. The script is stretched having to cover a distance of thousands of miles and a time scale measured in years. Nor does it help having the central duo spend long periods on different continents.

The scant awareness of this story in the west lends the film a fresh appeal. It’s handsomely crafted and well played. It’s an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of an African nation and a celebration of democracy. All of which is welcome. But as a drama I wished it had more grit.

@ChrisHunneysett

Captive

Director: Jerry Jameson (2015)

Based on a true story but failing to hold the attention, this kidnapping drama becomes an empowering experience for at least one of those involved.

With a shaved head and a pec-tastic physique, lauded British actor David Oyelowo stars as paranoid psychopath Brian Nichols.

He also produces and gives his wife a small role, so he must shoulder some of the blame for this uninspiring turgid mess.

After shooting his way out of a courthouse, Brian breaks into a random house to use a hide out.

This is bad news for Kate Mara playing home alone meth addict Ashley.

She’s desperate to be at a fashion show in the morning.

After years of addiction it’s her last chance to prove she’s capable of looking after her child. If she fails to turn up, her cute as a button infant daughter won’t be allowed home.

In this high stress situation she goes cold turkey. It’s her story and she’s sticking to it.

She reads self-help manuals and makes pancakes while he waffles to himself and watches TV.

Feeling like an advertorial for said self-help book, it features an appearance by the TV queen of over-empathy, Oprah Winfrey.

Michael K. Williams is in charge of SWAT teams as the none too sharp and distractingly named Detective Chestnut.

Move along, there’s nothing to see here.

A Most Violent Year

Director: J.C. Chandor (2015)

Visually and morally murky, this brooding New York crime thriller throws insubstantial punches from behind interesting shadows.

Shy on story this is a sombre exploration of the compromises necessary in perpetuating the myth of the American Dream.

In 1981 Oscar Isaac‘s immigrant self-made businessman, Abel, has put down a huge cash deposit to buy a derelict dockside property to expand his oil interests.

When David Oyelowo‘s District Attorney charges Abel for fraud and tax evasion, the bank refuse to loan Abel the money to complete his deal.

With seven days to raise the cash or lose everything he’s worked, Abel runs around the decaying, filthy and graffitied streets for meetings in back-rooms and barbershops.

Meanwhile his truckers and salespeople are being beaten up by rivals and his family are being threatened in their new home.

Jessica Chastain captivates as Abel’s beautiful and mob-connected wife, Anna, but she’s mostly there to spur him on and cook the books on his behalf.

Abel is naively unaware of his own inconsistencies with corruption and violence taking him by surprise, despite being mobbed up to the eyeballs and knowingly guilty as charged.

Everything is captured in a low key register: the lighting, the performances, the mood. It’s carefully calculated but struggles under its weighty self importance.

Brian De Palma’s gaudy masterpiece Scarface is deliberately referenced in Chastain’s icy style and the synthesised score, but this has none of the energy, bling, coke, violence or fun.

Only occasionally violent and taking place over a mere thirty three days, A Most Violent Year is a mis-named disappointment.

★★☆☆☆