by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone else, but it always takes a while for me to realise that I am in London. And not in a “constantly awe-inspired and can’t quite believe that it’s happening” way, more in a “this feels like being in a populated place, I guess” way. I guess being a, for-all-intents-and-purposes, Northerner, having spent much of my adolescence in either clustered semi-isolated villages or mostly closing-down towns, the myth of London and other such “Big Cities” can raise expectations a tad too high or fanciful. I recall my brother, after mine and his first trip down here a decade ago, heading back to Junior School at the beginning of the new academic year to brag and launch into tall tales about what London was like, as if he was the first person to ever discover this strange and exotic new land.
I am aware that this all sounds cliché, but that’s genuinely how it feels to me from time to time. For one, there’s that age-old feeling where you suddenly don’t want to do anything as soon as you’re given everything to choose from doing – the “everything” in this scenario being a full day in London by yourself with nothing scheduled to get in the way of exploring. Whilst for two, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees once you’re thrust into a new environment – the forest in this metaphor being “London” and the trees being “the sea of people that are everywhere all the time, dear lord.” So, for a while at least, London comes across to me as nothing more than one of my towns but with the crowds copy-pasted a few thousand times to boost the numbers.
But that “I’m in LONDON!” epiphany does eventually arrive, and it is a pretty great feeling when it does so. I’ve had it twice, so far. The first was on what we shall dub Day 0 (due to there not being any films on then) when I wandered along the Embankment as I tracked down the various screening locations, looked out across the Thames as the sun hit the water and realised that I was, indeed, in the nation’s capital. The second was on my downtime after Day 1 wrapped up. I was in Camden Market, perusing through the various vinyl record shops – because I am indeed every single stereotype you have in your head of a post-uni film critic – and was drawn to a record that I’d never heard before that was playing from the shop’s turntable. Two further songs after that, I asked the owner to bag it up for me and got to live the Vinyl Collector’s preferred boring anecdote for myself, which I just can’t do back home.
Anyway, that’s how I came to own a Sharon Redd record.
That kind of sudden rush of “THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING” adrenaline has been with me with regards to the London Film Festival ever since I picked up my Press Pass on Tuesday lunchtime. As you can see in the picture of it above, that’s a real legitimate Press Pass, with my name, my photo, and the words “Film Critic” printed on it. Sure, the “Film Critic” part carries the slightly delegitimising qualifier of the initial application process requesting that I define my role for The Hullfire myself, but still! “Callum Petch. Film Critic.” Those are actual words printed on official press credentials! Having been seriously critiquing and writing about films as a going concern for the past 6 and a half years now, that kind of validation is actually rather empowering for me; a potential acknowledgment that I can, in fact, possibly do this professionally.
I’ve never really deluded myself into believing that I would make it in the world of film criticism. Trying to earn a living as a writer in this day and age is difficult at best, and if established writers are having a hard time keeping the lights on – I still vividly remember the shock I had when The Dissolve shut its doors last year – then what hope do I have? That’s where my anxiety has been flaring up most in recent years, as that realisation has sank in further and I began truly fretting over where the rest of my life will take me, and having to spend much of third year dropping writing all together due to workload concerns, and the difficulty in getting back into it since finishing uni back in June, has left me wondering if this is even a career path I want to do anymore. After all, when you’ve spent so much of your life dedicated to a certain aspect of yourself, how can you not be terrified when it appears that you’ve fallen out of love with the thing you’ve given so much of yourself towards?
Staring at that Press Pass immediately deleted all of those thoughts and fears. The worry that I have fallen out of love with writing, the fear that I am some kind of fraud undeserving of the right to call myself a Film Critic who gets to run with the professionals, the anxiety that I’ll screw this whole trip up somehow… All of them melted away in the face of that Press Pass and the resultant buzz. This was really happening. I was going to cover the London Film Festival as a Film Critic, which my Press Pass firmly stated with no qualifiers or hesitations. It was a nervous giddy excitedness that stuck with me for the rest of Day 0, resurfaced as I made my way to Day 1’s only Press Screening (and my first of the festival), and likely won’t fully subside until after a few more days of this. After all, I’M IN LONDON AND I’M A FILM CRITIC!
As for the film I got to see, A United Kingdom (Grade: C), it was ok. Nothing more, nothing less. Much has been made of the festival’s attempt at embracing diversity this year – one which has been shared by many of the major film festivals throughout the year, as Hollywood and the industry at large finally starts trying to steer into the #OscarsSoWhite controversies that have plagued awards season for the past two years – so it makes sense to have the newest film from Belle’s Amma Asante be the curtain jerker. A crowd-pleasing biopic about how the interracial love between Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an English White woman, and Seretese Khama (David Oyelowo), a Black man who has been studying in England to prepare to take over the protectorate of Bechuanaland, started a chain of events that led to formation of the Republic of Botswana and its independence from oppressive British control; one could not get a more perfect Opening Night festival film if it came permanently rubberstamped with various “For Your Consideration” watermarks over the entire footage, which it might as well have been.
The film’s biggest problem is best epitomised by the fact that, in the courtship between Ruth and Seretese, they have both met, fallen in love at first sight, gone on multiple dates, been racially abused in the street, told each other they love each other, and proposed to one another by the 13 minute mark of a 110 minute film. The first act is extremely rushed, and consequently A United Kingdom loses the human element of its story. We are unable to see these characters as people or characters. Instead, the film wants you to just see them as cogs in an Issue, which is the opposite of what the best kinds of Issue movies end up doing, where they put the human element back in. Depicting a love story, or much in the way of human beings experiencing growth and development and acting like people at all, is not the film’s intended goal, and I at least give it respect for being so upfront about that.
Rather, A United Kingdom wants to be An Important Movie, as it announces from the get-go with the customary “Based on a True Story” title card, and this is less of a problem than most lesser biopics in recent years as, unlike something like The Theory of Everything or Black Mass, it does actually have things to say about its subjects. Occasionally nuanced things, too, rather than just “racism and colonialism are bad,” albeit in inferred ways through story structure than anything textual – the film does a very good job at demonstrating just how much of a rigged “lose-lose” system the British were forcing their conquered colonies to work within, and the effects on the oppressed that politicians don’t consider when they renege on prior promises. There’s also a very good David Oyelowo performance that is desperately trying to elevate the rest of the material it’s attached to. Sure, he gets to play to his wheelhouse of big rousing speeches about equality and how racism is a totally bad thing if you didn’t already know you guys, but he also taps into that same quiet heartbroken heavy strength that he found as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and that pain is apparent in every scene, not just the showier ones.
Unfortunately, he’s paired off with a Rosamund Pike who, fresh off of a career-best and career-redefining turn in Gone Girl, is playing to the material rather than trying to elevate it. Where Oyelowo is straining to find the human element to give the story a proper kick, Pike is straining to find space on her shelf for all the awards statuettes she’s clearly counting on racking up. Most all of her scenes are too forced and unnatural, a noticeable playing up to the show-reels that get trotted out come January, and consequently she never gels with her on-screen partner, the two effectively starring in two completely separate films – with Pike’s film also featuring a cornucopia of moustache-twirling obstructive and outright evil British governmental representatives (portrayed by folks like Jack Davenport and Tom Felton) because subtlety is not something this movie particularly understands.
That’s ultimately the problem. A United Kingdom plays it far too safe and is far too bland to work as anything other than a late-afternoon film that ITV1 shows before the next Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. It’s clearly been precision-refined to the sensibilities of aging White Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voters: every character-based conflict resolved with disappointing ease, every frame actively straining for awards consideration and screaming “YOU ARE WATCHING AN IMPORTANT MOVIE” so that the voters can feel morally superior, and an ending that comes dangerously close to “AND THEN RACISM WAS CURED IN THE GREAT REPUBLIC OF BOTSWANA FOREVER, THE END!” That last part especially is genuinely disappointing because I’ve heard that Asante’s Belle actively avoided falling into that trap, or any of those prior traps (I must confess to having not seen it myself).
In fairness, it’s not bad, particularly – it’s well-made, some of the bigger scenes do manage to stir the emotions somewhat, I appreciate that it never once starts entertaining the idea of slipping into a White Saviour narrative, and Oyelowo does good work – but it’s just instantly forgettable and disappointingly bland. Also, I fear that, since Hollywood has a bunch of films tackling race in some way coming down the pipeline this awards season, this is going to be rather indicative of their overall quality. My heart won’t be able to take Jeff Nichols’ Loving (which is not playing here) being bad, you hear me?!
Day 2: Park Chan-wook finally returns to the stage with the erotic drama that’s got all the heads turning in The Handmaiden, the 1966 University of Texas shootings finally receive the documentary treatment in Tower, and much more.