A wonderful trend in the last year of film has been the uncovering of long-forgotten (and sometimes, virtually unknown) stories about ground-breaking achievements that have quite literally changed history. While movies like Loving and Hidden Figures have unearthed chapters in America’s past that were not featured in history books, it’s almost inconceivable that the story featured in A United Kingdom has slipped from collective British consciousness since the events caused the significant upheaval of two nations.
The film starts out as a not-so-simple love story, set just after World War II, between a Botswana-born Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo from Selma), a law student studying in London, and typist Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike from Gone Girl). Soon after they fall for each other (with the expected pushback from both her family and pretty much anyone passing them on the street), he gets word to return to his homeland and take his rightful place as king. Not wanting to leave Ruth behind, the two get married in Britain, and Seretse brings her to Bechuanaland (currently known as Botswana) as their new queen. The move probably would not have gone over well in either nation regardless, but in Bechuanaland’s neighbor nation of South Africa, apartheid was just beginning. In addition, there was a serious push to separate the races in Bechuanaland as well, as it was effectively a British colony under British law.
What follows is a series of appalling and state-sanctioned actions, imperial bullying, and just bad dealings, all done in the name of racism and a desire to keep Bechuanaland on a tight leash due to the possibility of valuable mineral mines. Director Amma Asante (A Way of Life, Belle) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) lay out one soul-crushing scene after another, with British government lackeys (played by the likes of Jack Davenport and Tom Felton) pitting Seretse against his uncle, who wishes to take power away from his nephew for daring to bring a white woman in to rule their country. But by doing so, he’s falling right into Britain’s plan to divide and conquer their country.
The film doesn’t work until Oyelowo and Pike sell the romance, which they absolutely do. She is clearly terrified when she first moves to Bechuanaland with him that no one will accept her, and she stumbles through several attempts to win the people over. But eventually her commitment to their cause against the British and their king wins them over, especially when the British trick the king to come back to London and then refuses to let him leave, keeping the couple apart for a great deal of time. But this section of the film when they are separated features some of the movie’s best moments, especially with Ruth developing both routines and friends among the women that are now, for lack of a better word, her subjects, but she treats as equals who have a great deal to teach her.
Director Asante does a solid job keeping the complicated political wheelings and dealings clear and easy to understand. There’s a great deal of double-speak and talking around what is clearly a way for the government to institutionalize racist policies without admitting to doing so. The film falls short it placing some of the blame for the situation on Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s doorstep, but there are plenty of other bureaucratic weasels at whom to point the finger. A United Kingdom and the story of this couple and what they achieved is undoubtedly one worth remembering and being retold. I wish the film was coming out at a time of year where it wouldn’t get lost in a sea of awards contenders and be given a chance to shine in a less crowded field, but the fact that this tale is being told at all is a good thing in and of itself.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.