The end of this week sees the release of another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, at the prospect of which I am distinctly underwhelmed, but it gives me an opportunity to round up some reviews I’ve done of British costume dramas and period films, which continues to make up perhaps the bulk of British filmmaking (or so, at least, it sometimes seems). I’m starting with Amma Asante, a veteran of the genre with Belle (2013). I’m covering her last two films here, and while I don’t think them both entirely successful (some have been far harsher online about the most recent), I think they still come from an earnest place of wanting to tell more stories about the past than we usually see on screen (certainly in the British costume drama). I think that much is worth celebrating.
A United Kingdom (2016) [UK/Botswana/France]
Watching this telling of the story of the first elected president of independent Botswana, Serentse Khama (David Oyelowo) — albeit set at the time when he was the heir to the royal line in what was then called Bechuanaland — I certainly welcome Amma Asante as our era’s go-to director for handsome period epics of British imperial ambitions. It’s hardly perfect, though if you like the genre (and the Curzon Mayfair crowd surely do), I can’t really see how you wouldn’t like this: it has soaring orchestration, great period detail, handsome cinematography and the finest lead actors one could hope for. It has ambition, and it feels needed right now, this epic of colonial racial healing and progress. Sure, it’s trad, well-upholstered filmmaking to say the least, but that feels reassuring somehow.
Director Amma Asante; Writer Guy Hibbert (based on the non-fiction book Colour Bar by Susan Williams); Cinematographer Sam McCurdy; Starring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Jack Lowden; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 26 November 2016.
Where Hands Touch (2018) [UK]
Being an Amandla Stenberg fan can be quite a trying thing, really. I want to like all her movies, but this one just seems fundamentally misjudged. There are, I would say, two broad categories of problems with this film. The first is the staging, which is an old-school period film because Amma Asante is fully invested in the tradition. After Belle, this is another period story that seems to take a single image of a Black girl amongst white faces as its source. With this film, we are deep into the territory of people walking into and out of sumptuously set-designed period recreation rooms, and along carefully recreated, attractively (almost kitschily) soft-focus-lit streets while wearing lovingly recreated uniforms and such, so when they open their mouths it’s rather a disappointment that they all have to speak English viv ze German akkzent; it really pulls you out of the film in my opinion (if I had less problem with it in Terrence Malick’s most recent film A Hidden Life, perhaps that’s because the actors are all actually German, but it’s still weird). The dialogue also has a tendency to be over explanatory in ways that don’t necessarily help the drama. The other category of problem for me is the setting, because I don’t think any of us really needed to see an interracial Nazi love story. I appreciate that this is an aspect of history that hasn’t been told on screen, and the Nazis are hardly portrayed sympathetic as a whole, but it’s hard not to have a strong reaction when Jewish people being shot in the streets is your set-dressing.
Director/Writer Amma Asante; Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin; Starring Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Thursday 16 May 2019.