A UNITED KINGDOM – Patrick Doyle
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
One of the things I love most about the movies is the fact that it often gives me the opportunity to learn a little bit about historical events I previously knew nothing about. Case in point: A United Kingdom, the latest film from British director Amma Asante, which is basically about the events leading up to the foundation of the Republic of Botswana. In 1947 Botswana was still known as Bechuanaland and was part of the British Empire, ruled by both a local royal family, and by a High Commissioner appointed by the British Crown. Seretse Khama, the heir to the throne, is in London studying law, and intends to return home once his studies are finished to take over from his uncle, who has acted as his regent since his father’s death. Things become more complicated when Seretse meets and falls in love with Ruth Williams, a middle class white woman; what unfolds is simultaneously a love story, a treatise on racism in the UK and Africa in the 1940s, and a political drama concerning the complicated diplomatic relationship between Britain and its Commonwealth colonies in southern Africa. The film, which was released in British cinemas in November 2016 prior to its worldwide opening in February 2017, stars David Oyelowo as Seretse, and Rosamund Pike as Ruth, and features an excellent supporting cast of British and African character actors including Vusi Kunene, Terry Pheto, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, and Nicholas Lyndhurst.
The score for A United Kingdom is by composer Patrick Doyle, who has been rather quiet over the last couple of years : this is only his fourth film score in the last five years, following on from Brave in 2012, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit in 2014, and Cinderella in 2015. Thankfully A United Kingdom is a movie very much in Doyle’s wheelhouse, and he has vast experience writing scores for films about fledgling countries and burgeoning democracies, as works like Indochine and Nouvelle-France attest. In many ways, this score represents a return to the lush, romantic work that won Doyle so many fans in the 1990s. There are hints of works like A Little Princess, East-West, Mrs. Winterbourne, Sense and Sensibility, and the more traditionally dramatic parts of Hamlet, as well as the aforementioned Indochine and Nouvelle-France, in many of the instrumental combinations and chord progressions that Doyle utilizes throughout the score, but where A United Kingdom suffers slightly is in its thematic content. Unlike those other works, which all featured memorable melodies, much of A United Kingdom can come across as curiously anonymous. The textures are lovely, but it’s a score which tends to waft by on a breeze without leaving any lasting impression if you’re not paying close enough attention.
They’re not easy to pick out, but there appear to be two themes which float around each other for the majority of the score. The first theme appears to be related to the concept of Africa and Seretse’s love for his home in the Kalahari Desert, while the second theme acts as a recurring relationship theme for Seretse and Ruth, and their dreams of a life together. What makes it difficult is that the two themes often play consecutively, one leading into the other, or contrapuntally, at the same time, so that they seem to be one single piece of music. Doyle also doesn’t appear to use them in strict leitmotivic fashion, and the orchestration of both themes tends to be identical – softly romantic strings underpinned by harp glissandi, with added color from woodwinds and piano – so there is no obvious instrumental delineation to help tell them apart. Both themes appear in the opening cue “Seretse and Ruth,” the Africa theme for the first time at 0:45, and the Love theme for the first time at 1:32.
Thereafter Doyle peppers his score with liberal performances of both themes to drive forward the narrative of the unfolding story. The Africa theme is prominent in “Let Him Go,” which begins darkly but builds to a lovely conclusion with strident string writing underneath the main motif; in the rousing “Pula,” when the Bamangwato people finally accept Ruth as their Queen; in the dramatic and pulsating “Ruth Must Stay,” which gets much heavier towards the end as the reality of her circumstances alone in Africa kick in; and toward the end of “Permission to Return,” where the harp solo performance of the theme speaks of relief and the realization of dreams.
Meanwhile, the Love theme appears in a very different version in “Wedding Interruption,” where it starts out pretty and optimistic, with strings, piano, and oboe, but becomes much bolder and more dramatic as it reaches its conclusion, underpinned by urgent piano lines and an increased brass presence. In “The Registry Office” the Love theme shifts between warmly romantic strings and tender oboes, and is heard contrapuntally with the Africa theme on piano at 1:11, while in “Because of Us” the theme adopts a slight sense of unease, the beautiful string harmonies given a feeling of doubt by the undulating pianos underneath.
The performance of the Love theme in “Seretse in London” is anchored by an elegant piano line, beautiful, but detached, and a little morose, illustrating the depth of feeling between Seretse and Ruth during their enforced separation. These emotions come to a head in the childlike and innocent “Ruth Is Pregnant,” and in the subsequent “Ruth is Alone,” which is quite haunting, and features a performance on searching, longing strings. Thankfully, things are rectified during “Ruth Returns Home,” which showcases a gorgeous performance of the Love theme for lush strings and cymbal rings, as she is not only reunited with her husband, but with her estranged family and father too.
Interestingly, there is a complete lack of any African musical influences in Doyle’s score – director Asante clearly instructed the Scotsman to avoid any tribal music clichés – and so the entire album is rooted solely in the western classical idiom. In fact, Doyle only occasionally deviates from his set tonal palette, Cues such as “Policy of Apartheid,” “Seretse Is Worried,” “Five Year Exile,” and the first half of “Ruth is Alone” adopt a more somber tone, with downbeat oboe passages, sequences of more turbulent percussion, and minor-key thematic resolutions that are nevertheless wholly appropriate considering the terrible injustices served on the couple both by their families, and by the British government, none of whom seem to want their marriage to last. Similarly, “Seretse Addresses Parliament” has a dramatic, urgent, determined aspect, with strident cello ostinatos overlaid by optimistic violins accompanying the scenes of Seretse and his political sponsors, Tony Benn and Fenner Brockaway, petition the government to right the wrongs they have committed.
The film’s culmination, “Independence,” underscores the rousing scene where Seretse finally returns home to his people in Bechuanaland and outlines his vision for a free Botswana; here, the repeated statements of the Africa theme gradually become grander, bolder, and more celebratory, with stirring string writing augmented by cymbal rings. The conclusive “The Future,” which accompanies stills and footage of the real Seretse and Ruth as they became the inaugural President and First Lady of Botswana, features a beautiful solo piano performance of the Love theme, which gradually picks up a noble-sounding string wash.
Fans of Patrick Doyle’s writing will certainly find A United Kingdom to be to their liking, especially anyone whose first exposure to his music came via one of those great dramatic 1990s scores I mentioned in the second paragraph. However, I found this score to be one which takes a little time to warm up to; although the music is undoubtedly lovely, the rigid consistency of the tone of the piece, and the lack of differentiation between the two main themes, make it occasionally seem a little ‘samey,’ as if each cue is basically the same piece of music, right down to the orchestration. It takes a little bit of context knowledge, and a little bit of patience, to truly appreciate A United Kingdom, but once it clicks, the rewards are great. As a tribute to the dogged determination of a man dedicated to love, justice, and freedom, A United Kingdom is a fine and worthy piece of music.
Buy the United Kingdom soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Seretse and Ruth (4:07)
- Policy of Apartheid (1:43)
- Wedding Interruption (1:32)
- The Registry Office (3:54)
- Because of Us (1:24)
- Seretse Is Worried (1:43)
- Let Him Go (2:20)
- Equality and Justice (1:21)
- Pula! (2:43)
- Learning the Language (2:55)
- Ruth Must Stay (2:57)
- Five Year Exile (2:13)
- Seretse in London (1:37)
- Neladi Kharma (1:25)
- Ruth Is Pregnant (2:41)
- Seretse Addresses Parliament (2:07)
- Ruth Is Alone (4:20)
- Ruth Returns Home (2:09)
- Permission to Return (3:29)
- Independence (3:47)
- The Future (3:14)
Running Time: 53 minutes 42 seconds
Varese Sarabande (2016/2017)
Music composed by Patrick Doyle. Conducted by James Shearman. Performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by James Shearman. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner, Jake Jackson and Nick Taylor. Edited by Andrew Glen. Album produced by Patrick Doyle.