Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


A United Kingdom
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The historical drama “A United Kingdom” (Fox Searchlight) tells the story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), an African royal who faced down mid-20th-century racial prejudice to marry Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white office worker he met in post-Second World War London.

Seretse and Ruth cross paths at a dance where they discover a mutual love of jazz. She subsequently learns that he’s a prince of what was then called Bechuanaland, a British protectorate (the future Botswana). Their romance proceeds at a rapid clip despite occasional encounters with racist street punks.

Political considerations pose a much larger obstacle, however. The British government has to deal with Bechuanaland’s neighbour, South Africa, which is on the verge of installing apartheid as official — and violently enforced — government policy and is outraged by the high-profile marriage.

The match also runs into considerable resistance from Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who has long been the protectorate’s acting regent. It draws the scorn of many native women as well.

The generic portrayal of this last group reveals the basic flaw hobbling director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s film: virtually everyone on screen is an archetype.

Although dealing in generalities can be an efficient way to boil down episodes of the past that are likely unfamiliar to modern audiences, it also hinders the storytelling.

Sometimes, an epic, in-your-face treatment, such as that seen in 1982’s “Gandhi” or 2014’s “Selma” is the best way to go with stories of bigotry, since such an approach gets facts across in an easily comprehensible way. Without it, they can become difficult to follow, as in last year’s “Loving.”

But there are obvious budgetary constraints at work here. As a result, members of Seretse’s tribe have little to do except chant and sing in crowd sequences.

Similarly, the perfidy of British politicians, including Prime Minister Clement Attlee (Anton Lesser), is mostly kept off-screen, except for sneering appearances by diplomat Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport). Canning opposes Seretse’s union to such an extent, he forces the prince into exile.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, “A United Kingdom” does boast a strong moral component.

Ultimately, for example, official acceptance of a marriage that threatened to undermine Britain’s fragile postwar remnants of empire depended not on a court ruling, but on the conscience of the British people. It was they who finally persuaded their political representatives that this couple was no menace to international relations.

Yet, except for the core romance and Ruth’s struggles for acceptance, little of this complicated saga — in addition to everything else, the machinations of an American diamond-mining company get thrown into the mix — comes across clearly. There is inspiration to be found here. But it requires quite a bit of patience on the viewer’s part to locate it.

The film contains brief sensuality and some racial slurs. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


Kong: Skull Island

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — With a thematic agenda that takes it beyond the usual confines of its genre, and a story driven forward by sustained, nervous dread — an emotion skillfully conveyed from the characters to the audience — “Kong: Skull Island” (Warner Bros.) is an impressive monster movie. 

The multiple dangers the cast confront lead to some unsettling mayhem and a few grisly deaths, however, marking this as a film strictly for grownups.

Set in 1973, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ action adventure uses the waning days of the Vietnam War as a backdrop — and as a cue for its exploration of the destructive human aggressiveness that gives rise to armed conflict.

The movie’s embodiment of such belligerence is hard-bitten Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Together with his civilian counterpart, fringe researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman), Packard leads an ensemble of scientists and soldiers on a government sponsored expedition to the location of the title, a previously uncharted island perpetually surrounded, on all sides, by a turbulent weather pattern.

There, Packard, Randa and their followers — most prominently British special forces veteran James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who has been hired to serve as the group’s guide, and self-described anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who has decided this is her next big story — encounter an updated version of King Kong.

Scattered by the helicopter-swatting rampage with which the outsized ape greets their unwelcome intrusion (supposedly to further “seismic research,” they’ve announced their arrival by bombarding the terrain with powerful explosives), the travellers are split into two contingents. One of these crosses paths with eccentric Second World War-era Air Force officer Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly).

Forced to bail out over the isle way back in 1944, Marlow has been stranded there ever since. To their considerable surprise, he informs his newfound acquaintances that, while Kong may be the monarch of this hidden realm, he is far from the most lethal threat they’ll have to face there.

The stage is set for a clash between Packard, who’s out to avenge his fallen troops by exterminating Kong, and those accompanying Marlow who only want to avoid trouble and reach a prearranged rendezvous point where they hope to be rescued.

As this contest of wills unfolds, screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s script references a range of science fiction movies. More significantly it also evokes Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” and its partial source material, Polish-born British author Joseph Conrad’s classic 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness.”

On the lighter side, the dialogue is kept sprightly by a consciously campy, self-mocking tone, especially in early scenes where exposition is needful. And at least some of the mature viewers for whom “Kong” is suitably will be old enough to get a kick out of such period details as rotary phones and wide, loud neckties.

The film contains stylized but grim combat and other violence with little gore, a few gruesome images, a couple of uses of profanity, at least one rough term and occasional crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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