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‘A United Kingdom’ (review)

Produced by Brunson Green, Charlie Mason,
Rick McCallum, Cameron McCracken,
Justin Moore-Lewy, David Oyelowo
Screenplay by Guy Hibbert
Based on Colour Bar by Susan Williams
Directed by Amma Asante
Starring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike,
Terry Pheto, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton,
Abena Ayivor, Vusi Kunene

We are at an interesting time in cinema, where true stories that may have been common knowledge in their immediate geographical area are finding their way to the big screen.

Certainly the entire black community around Langley knew of the black female computers at NASA long before Hidden Figures. In A United Kingdom, we are able to see the controversial love story that eventually led to the first democratically elected king of Botswana. A well-known story overseas, this is a lovely but restrained introduction to the rest of the world.

Inspired by true events, the film follows the romance between Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) of Bechuanaland (known today as Botswana) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white English clerk. After meeting during his years at Oxford, Khama married Ruth despite the disapproval of his uncle, the British government, and Botswana’s apartheid-friendly neighbor South Africa. Through banishment and strife, the two persevered for the sake of the country that both called home.

The film gives little backstory to either lead, preferring to jump to their meeting within minutes of the start. This treatment is unfortunate for two reasons. Though we can assume something about the motives or upbringing of an African prince trained in law at Oxford, there is no basis for any of Ruth’s actions outside of “woman in love”. While that is a force that can move mountains, it can make many of her actions seem as if she were completely dependent on Seretse for strength of character. On the other end, the brief look into their courtship makes it seems as if Seretse made this decision after a semester abroad though in reality they were together for over a year before marrying. While the mechanism for the montage (sending jazz records back and forth) is both sweet and a clever nod to the period, it does not give a good enough sense of the passage of time to dispel doubts about rash decisions. Thankfully the pacing of the rest of the movie is spot on.

Director Amma Asante carefully balances the love story against the political drama. When Seretse appeals to his countrymen to accept his wife rather than play into racial segregation his speech reinforces his dedication to wife and homeland at the same time. Throughout the film moments of bureaucratic strife are blended with the tenderness of personal relationships in a way that is lovely if not a bit prim. It’s hard to decide whether Asante’s take on this story is overly polite and demure, or if she wishes to match the cold and calculating stoicism of the British government to a consistently graceful determination in Seretse and Ruth. Each time the opportunity to go further into anger, sorrow, or love is presented the movie shies away from the extra step. The vulnerability is always explored, but the rawer examples of passion are noticeably missing.

The performances in the movie across the board were engrossing, and showed a great eye for casting. While it was a shame that David Oyelowo was passed over for his work in Selma, he brings a combination of command and gentility to his portrayal of Seretse. Even scenes of open weeping add nobility rather than weakness. Rosamund Pike is absolutely believable as an enamored office girl turned “fish out of water” turned savvy political complement to Seretse. Her careful but unwavering strength makes it easy to see why he would risk a kingdom to have her by his side.

As they move from England to Africa, the mood shifts considerably. The wet gray streets in London come off exactly as stark and unfeeling as they must have seemed to the couple.

Conversely the warmth, beauty, and richness of the sweeping plains of Bechuanaland immediately conveys a sense of home. The attention to detail for costuming gives us government figures in sharp suits, white women with impeccably crafted curls, and a mixture of western clothing and traditional dress for the women and men of Botswana that show the influence of their colonizers. There is no denying this film is beautifully shot.

A United Kingdom works equally well as a period romance piece or political drama. If anything it is hard to pinpoint whether this is a love story with a side of historical turmoil or vice versa. Whichever way you may see it, this film is a heartwarming addition to the canon of untold true stories which are both universally appealing and relatable in their humanity.

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