Review: A United Kingdom
Ruth and Seretse are two people who fall in love. Amidst the gray, foggy streets of London, these people have a swirling, whirlwind romance amidst dancing to jazz and long talks. The trouble is, one of them is an ordinary person, the other is an heir to a throne.
In her film A United Kingdom, director Amma Asante explores the complicated circumstances of a British white woman marrying the heir apparent to Bechuanaland (what we now call Botswana). Their romance has far-reaching implication, even if they are just two people who want to their lives. The film stars David Oyelowo (Selma) and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl). Amma Asante is working from a script by Guy Hibbert, based on the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams.
Sir Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) meets Ruth Williams (Pike) in London and they begin a sweet, exciting courtship. Knowing that what they have cannot last, Seretse tells her that he is to take over as king to Bechuanaland, and will have to leave her. But both Seretse and Ruth know they have something special and he proposes to her. Almost immediately, the British government, who wants to appease South Africa by encouraging apartheid in other African nations, opposes their marriage. Seretse'd uncle, the regent chief, (South African actor Vusi Kunene) also opposes the marriage. Seretse and Ruth’s turbulent marriage and steadfast devotion to each other forms the emotional throughline of the film.
Comparisons to Jeff Nichols’ Civil Rights-era drama Loving from last year are easy to make. Both films present their central couples as people who just want to live their lives. They are not seeking to change the world, or defy their governments—they just want to be together. A United Kingdom does not spend much time on the courtship between Ruth and Seretse; a viewer just has to accept their love and devotion (though an interracial marriage or any “non-traditional” marriage shouldn’t be held to a higher standard of course). This is the kind of film that will live on and die in its stars’ chemistry.
Luckily, Asante cast two glowing, radiant movie stars in the leads who bring the film to life through their romantic chemistry and confident dramatic performances. David Oyelowo is commanding and thunderous, delivering his speeches with aplomb. Rosamund Pike is sweet and effervescent; with a surprising ferocity behind the eyes. The supporting cast, including Terry Pheto, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, and Abena Ayivor, fill out their roles quite well. However, the film works best as a showcase for its two leads. The other characters don’t get much development.
At times, the film can get a little lost in its politics. it's not easy to pin down the larger content of these government machinations; like with most historical films, a miniseries would have served the story quite well. However, the subplot of Ruth winning over her sister-in-law (Pheto) and her constituents feels forced. The film spends a lot of time with Seretse battling the British and Bechuanaland governments, but I would have liked to see more of Ruth interacting with her new people.
To be frank, I’m not a fan of the title A United Kingdom. It’s too precious by half, and it opens the film up to unfair criticism of being superficial and forgettable. Asante is not working on autopilot. Much like in her breakout film Belle, Asante features some stunning compositions and does an amazing job of contrasting the British and African locales. This is a beautiful film, with a compelling story and rich lead performances.