Film Review: A United Kingdom

Worthwhile, enjoyable though not especially stirring depiction of the monumental struggle faced by an African king, played by David Oyelowo, and the white British woman he loved, to marry and govern what would become independent Botswana.
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In A United Kingdom, African royalty and British commoner, black and white, and Southern African tribes that would become Botswana unite, but not without a long and arduous fight. This historical romance by Amma Asante, the gifted director of Belle, tells the remarkable true story of an African king and the middle-class English woman he marries in 1948 despite the condemnation of both their families and nations, yet the telling never quite lives up to the story, despite a top-drawer cast and honey-hued cinematography shot on location in Botswana. 

Of course, it’s always a challenge to convey historical events in under two hours without shortchanging the complexity of the politics or the characters. Guy Hibbert’s screenplay (based on Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar) aims for a portrait not only of an interracial love affair and marriage between people from widely different cultures and classes, but also of the hubris and deceit of the fading British Empire trying to keep control of Bechuanaland Protectorate, which would become independent Botswana in 1966, with the film’s hero, Seretse Khama, its first president.

We first meet Seretse (Selma’s David Oyelowo) in a London boxing ring, battling a white local who head-butts him, a metaphor for the larger challenge, which begins when he and young Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an insurance clerk, lock eyes at a London Mission Society mixer. Ruth is there with her sister (played by “Downton Abbey”’s Laura Carmichael), and Seretse with fellow African law students. Asante and her production team do a wonderful job depicting the claustrophobic, gray milieu of post-war London, especially in contrast to the later scenes of vast, golden African plains.

Seretse and Ruth are soon trading jazz albums and walking arm-in-arm, but when the couple announce their engagement they literally take on the world. Not only do Ruth’s parents reject them, but Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), the Regent of the Bamangwato tribe who raised Seretse after the death of his parents, equally aghast, conspires with the British government to stop their marriage.

That Seretse and Ruth persevere in their resolve to wed in the face of such opposition by both those they love and their governments is extraordinary enough, but that is just the beginning. Once Ruth lands in Bechuanaland, she is met with cold hostility by Seretse’s sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto of Tsotsi), and the Bamangwato women, who do not appreciate having a white Briton as their queen. Pike (Gone Girl) conveys Ruth’s vulnerability, especially after Seretse is called to London and she agrees to stay behind, but her performance is a little one-note. When Ruth discovers she is pregnant, the women come around, recognizing her spunk and good will. There is an overextended birth scene with mimed agony and one too many violins on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, Sereste discovers that the British government, with the approval of his uncle and the prodding of neighboring apartheid South Africa, has banished him from his homeland, which he will not see for another five years. Sir Seretse Khama, with Ruth by his side, would go on to unite and liberate his country, helping to bring it from abject poverty to one of the most economically advanced democracies in Africa.

Perhaps Seretse and Ruth really were perfect under immense pressure, with never a cross word or moral failing (by all accounts, they were exceptional individuals), but their lack of interpersonal conflict here tends to homogenize them. Oyelowo brings his natural grace and intelligence to the role (he was instrumental in bringing this project to the screen), and he and Pike have some chemistry, but their characters never develop the kind of nuance one would hope for. Although we see Pike’s Ruth brave adversity, driving herself to the hospital while in labor, she appears more passive than Ruth apparently was in real life. The actors are not helped by Patrick Doyle’s overwrought score, which further sentimentalizes the characterizations.

As the (fictional) British diplomat Sir Alistair Canning, who stands in for the Empire and its self-serving machinations, Jack Davenport delivers the requisite supercilious chill.

While A United Kingdom simplifies the history of Botswana and the remarkable couple that led it into the modern age, it is worth seeing for the pleasure of knowing their story.

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