A United Kingdom
Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom recounts the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an interracial couple who in the 1950s faced opposition against their marriage from the British Government. The film is a sweeping period drama which carries all the moral weight (and worthiness) you might expect (and want) from its storyline. It’s inspiring, its main characters are admirable, and the acting performances are spot-on. In short, it does what it says on the tin.
Seretse was a Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Thus the matter of whom he married mattered, especially to his South African neighbours, who were at the time instituting the horrific policy of apartheid. Hence, shortly after Ruth and Seretse’s romance and engagement, the pair are ushered into Foreign Office buildings, pressured mercilessly (though with great mock politeness) by British Civil servants, and rejected by both families. Once they are indeed married and arrive in Bechuanaland, they set out to assert themselves as a couple to Seretse’s immediate community as well as dodge the Brit’s efforts to separate them.
Not enough films are willing to explore Britain’s unpalatable colonial traditions. All credit goes to Asante for unearthing Seretse and Ruth’s story and tackling it head on. However - and much like Asante’s previous period film on the slave trade, Belle -the film struggles to keep a balance between its political dimensions and its romantic tone. As an audience, we feel split between wanting to see more of the couple’s interior life, and getting a firmer grasp of the motivations of those acting against them.
Oyelowo and Pike inhabit their characters with warmth, and the two carry convincingly the image of a stable, confident, marriage. They’re simply heart-warming to watch. Dialogue, however, sometimes lets them down and occasionally veers on the over-dramatic. Even its humour at times feels gauche. A witty remark works great in a family scene in Downton Abbey - perhaps not so much when the protagonists are facing horrible, domineering racism.
Overall, A United Kingdom remains an enjoyable watch and a fitting testament to the lives of the couple it depicts. In addition to all this, however, it offers us a rare satisfaction: the knowledge that, in real life, everything does turn out well for Seretse and Ruth (he goes on to become the first President of an independent Botswana). You can’t say the same of many biopics.