Addressing a world that is still (even after the precedent set by the presidency of Barack Obama) increasingly afflicted by institutionalized racism and all manner of bigotries, “A United Kingdom” looks back to mid-20th-century history to create a love-conquers-much-if-not-all tale of interracial marriage and international politics.
The story is of Seretse Khama, heir to the kingship of an African people, who was attending school in Britain during the late 1940s. At a church dance, Seretse, played by David Oyelowo, meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The two eye each other warily as the band bleats. He asks her if she likes jazz; she insists she does, only not as she’s ever heard any British musicians play it. Soon they are swapping 78s by mail, and dating. One night he kneels to propose.
There are, of course, complications. A good number of them are predictable, but they go deeper than a viewer unfamiliar with their story might have expected. Seretse’s homeland, Bechuanaland (now Botswana), an African protectorate under British control, sits directly above South Africa, which in the late 1940s was instituting the murderous policy of apartheid. The British, therefore, were deeply invested in not alienating South Africa’s rulers. And Seretse’s uncle is not keen on the returning king bringing home a white queen.
For all the tumult surrounding them, the couple remain the focus of the film. The director, Amma Asante (working from a script by Guy Hibbert, who adapted Susan Williams’s 2006 nonfiction book “Colour Bar”), emphasizes this in her staging of the unequivocal and unaffected affection and regard they exchange.
Here, as with her 2014 feature, “Belle,” Ms. Asante addresses contemporary concerns via period romance, and her commitment to the romance is not a feint. At one point the movie shows political unrest churning into violence, and juxtaposes that with a scene of the pregnant Ruth going into labor. Were you to bet that the movie would follow the childbirth thread, you would win.
This is also a very polite film. When, in a moment of frustration, Seretse swipes his arm across his desktop, knocking papers off it, Ms. Asante cuts before a single sheet, or any other object, hits the floor. For all that, the movie depicts the appalling political gamesmanship that conspires to keep Seretse and Ruth apart (including, in a shocking twist, a betrayal by a historical figure who’s almost exclusively lauded in pop-culture portrayals) with consistent clarity. And while her filmmaking style can sometimes come across as staid, her sense of pace is always acute.
The best reason to see “A United Kingdom,” however, is the performance by Mr. Oyelowo, who is also one of the film’s producers. As written by Mr. Hibbert, Seretse Khama is a character of stock wisdom and nobility — on introduction, practically his first words are “I see an Africa that’s about unity, inclusion and equality.” But Mr. Oyelowo, who is one of the best actors working today onstage or onscreen, imbues his portrayal of Seretse (who in 1966 became the democratically elected president of the independent Botswana) with a disarming delicacy and vulnerability that make the strengths he is later forced to show all the more convincing. It is remarkable, genuinely riveting work.
The other actors are also very fine for the most part: Ms. Pike’s Ruth conveys a commanding intelligence, and Vusi Kunene and Terry Pheto are two different kinds of proud in portraying Seretse’s disapproving kin. (Tom Felton, as an underhanded British bureaucrat, seems to be hard pressed to avoid twirling his waxed mustache, on the other hand.) But it’s Mr. Oyelowo who truly makes “A United Kingdom” a deeper, more rewarding film.
Continue reading the main story