Another compelling period drama from Belle (2013) director Amma Asante, A United Kingdom stars David Oyelowo (Selma) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) as Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, a real life couple whose 1948 marriage generated enough international controversy to provoke a Judicial Inquiry on the part of the British Government. Simultaneously a stirring love story and an absorbing history lesson, A United Kingdom serves up old-fashioned Hollywood romance while sensitively exploring issues of racism, economic exploitation and colonial oppression in post-Second World War Britain and southern Africa.
Ruth is an unpretentious, independent-minded, thoroughly middle-class shopkeepers daughter working as a clerk when she first meets Seretse at a dance hosted by the London Mission Society in 1947. He’s a rather dashing law student and passionate public speaker who shares Ruth’s love of jazz music. They are instantly, powerfully attracted to one another (something that is nicely conveyed by Oyelowo and Pike’s subtly sizzling on-screen chemistry) and embark upon a whirlwind romance. As an interracial couple Ruth and Seretse are frequently subjected to harassment while out in public together, but the real problem comes when Seretse confesses to being the heir to the throne of the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (now the Republic of Botswana).
When the couple decide to marry they face opposition not just from Ruth’s intolerant parents and Seretse’s uncle and Bechuanaland’s current regent Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), who warns his nephew that his people will never accept a white queen, but also from the British Government itself. Shortly before her wedding Ruth receives a visit from Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), an odious government official who insists she end her engagement because Britain is dependant upon cheap South African gold and uranium and cannot risk offending the country’s newly elected Prime Minister. Whatever the political considerations Davenport makes it clear that there is also plenty of racism underlying his character’s personal antipathy towards the match.
Ruth refuses to be bullied and after a modest wedding ceremony the couple fly to Bechuanaland. Seretse wins popular support for his marriage and ascends to the throne but Canning and the British government continue to cause problems and South Africa’s recently implemented apartheid policies begin to have an insidious influence on Bechuanaland. The British eventually have Seretse declared unfit to rule and exile him to London for five years, leaving a pregnant Ruth stranded in Bechuanaland with little support and few allies. Each and every minute the couple spends apart during the film’s second and third act as they fight desperately to be reunited feels like a subtle but stinging indictment of the racist policies and ideologies responsible for their cruel, forced separation.
A United Kingdom confirms that Amma Asante is a filmmaker with a rare gift for using personal, small-scale stories to tackle intimidatingly broad, complex subject matter like slavery (in 2013’s Belle) and British colonialism and institutionalized racial segregation here. Asante maintains a tight focus on her two main characters, never widening her scope to show us things like South African Prime Minister Daniel Malan (who does not appear on-screen despite arguably being the film’s main villain). Instead we feel his poisonous presence (or rather that of his apartheid government) in a galling scene where Seretse is denied an alcoholic beverage in his own country. Oyelowo and Pike do their part by ensuring that their characters always read as ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.