In her follow up to Belle – a film that tackled both the personal and political in its examination of racism and slavery – Amma Asante explores similar themes but on a much larger canvas. A United Kingdom tells the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), who upon marrying a white English woman, creates a political storm that threatens the future of his country.
The woman in question is Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) who meets Seretse when is he is a law student in post-war London. She falls in love with him almost immediately when she hears him speak passionately and idealistically about politics and imperialism. Their romance is quickly and beautifully sketched by Asante, with Seretse’s proposal coming before the film even hits the 15-minute mark. It is believable, thanks in no small part to Guy Hibbert’s excellent writing, but it is the performances of Pike and Oyelowo that really sell it.
Her father disapproves. His friends disapprove. Small-minded idiots attack them in street. But nothing deters them. They are in love, and nothing will get in their way. But their love was more than just a race scandal. There were diplomatic and geo-political consequences to their relationship. And it is through Pike and Oyelowo, and the deft way in which Asante depicts their romance, that we truly believe that their love was strong enough to withstand this pressure.
News of their engagement spreads quickly, and the UK government intervenes in the shape of Jack Davenport’s Sir Alistair Canning. He advises that a black King, installing a white queen would have consequences, not only in the British Empire controlled country of Bechuanaland, but in the neighbouring countries too. The main concern of the British is that it would insult South Africa, who are about to enforce apartheid.
They wed discreetly and the film then shifts to their arrival in Bechuanaland, where Seretse must convince his uncle and the people of his country to support him. If his decision to wed a white woman tears the country in two, it will make them vulnerable to other countries in the region, specifically South Africa. In these scenes, Oyelowo reminds us of his incredible skill at delivering speeches. His call for tolerance and acceptance sadly strikes some very contemporary chords. He wins the support of his people, but the British banish him, leaving Ruth all alone in her new country.
Asante pulls no punches in her depiction of British imperialism. The betrayals, the oppression, and the exploitation all carried out by the colonial powers are a sickening reminder of Britain’s crimes in Africa. With Seretse banished, the British allow an American mining company to begin prospecting the land for diamonds. Jack Davenport and Tom Felton both give suitably sneering, boo-hiss performances as the colonial representatives for the region.
The second half of the film does slow down slightly, as it becomes more of a political drama, and the relationship of Ruth and Seretse takes a back seat. This is of course inevitable when dealing with a true story where the protagonists were separated for a long period of time, but the film sadly does lose something as a result. When Pike and Oyelowo are on screen together the film soars. When they’re not, it kind of stumbles.
The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Asante evokes post-war London beautifully, and the sumptuous visuals filmed on location in Botswana are as good and grand as anything in Out of Africa. Bolstered by terrific, stoic performances from Pike and Oyelowo, A United Kingdom is a romantic, entertaining, and politically important film. It’s a fascinating and overlooked true story that deserves to be widely seen, and should quite rightly mark out Amma Asante as one of Britain’s most exciting and relevant filmmakers.
The disc comes with four short featurettes, including a making of documentary, a feature about shooting in Botswana, a look at the legacy of Seretse and Ruth Khama, and a piece from the London Film Festival, where A United Kingdom was the opening night gala film. Finally, the disc also comes with the theatrical trailer.
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton Director: Amma Assante Writer: Guy Hibbert Released By: 20th Century Fox Certificate: 12 Duration: 105 mins Release Date: 20th March 2017