'A United Kingdom': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A rousing true love story brings African history to life.

David Oyelowo portrays African king Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike his English wife in director Amma Asante’s political-romantic drama.

The hubbub surrounding an African prince’s marriage to an Englishwoman, just as South Africa was enacting its apartheid laws to separate blacks and whites, becomes both a rousing love story and a triumphant call to justice in A United Kingdom. Based on Susan William’s book Colour Bar, it is a remarkable tale not only because it's a true story, but one where a romance influenced the outcome of British and African history.

Overcoming some initial uncertainty and shallowness, this third feature by British director Amma Asante (Belle) finds its stride through the efforts of its very on-key actors David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), who make it a crowd-pleaser. It received a warm reception in Toronto, where Asante has premiered all three of her films, and will open the 60th London Film Festival early next month on an upbeat, politically correct note.

Though Asante is no stylist or and no very deep psychologist, she is adept at reaching an audience through direct storytelling. Her talent for ferreting out intriguing bits of history that have somehow been forgotten powered her successful second film Belle about an 18th century girl of mixed-race parentage who was raised in the English aristocracy. Here the story is again about race and prejudice, and no less remarkable.

Oyelowo, who memorably portrayed American leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, assumes the scepter of royalty as the young Seretse Khama, heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) and then his country’s first democratically elected president. While studying law in London after the war, Seretse falls deeply in love with Ruth, a simple office worker he meets at a dance.

Apart from the fact that they have a common interest in jazz, and Ruth is played by the fascinating and self-assured Pike, it’s not easy to see what attracts him to the point of jeopardizing his future kingship, or her when it means breaking with her family. A hidden destiny seems to draw them together. In short order Seretse is on his knees, proposing. Neither of them realizes their marriage will cause an international political crisis.

A foretaste of the racial tension that awaits them is offered by some brawlers on a dark street, and by Ruth’s father, who washes his hands of her when he hears of their engagement. But when they blithely fly off to Bechuanaland, a poverty- and disease-stricken land of flat plains and red dust, the greatest obstacles come from Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), who has raised him like a son and has been the country’s regent while the boy was readied to take the reins of power. For him, a white wife is an affront to the whole country, and he demands the future king divorce her or renounce his throne.

So does the English government, which controls Bechuanaland as a British Protectorate. Britain has made a “pact with the devil," i.e., the racially divided South Africa, which won’t tolerate a happy, mixed-marriage royal couple living on its border. One would have to go back to the Gandhi era to see its colonial empire depicted so scornfully. Tom Felton, who made such an obnoxious bully in the Harry Potter movies, is even nastier as a pipsqueak official, topped only by Jack Davenport’s sneering face in the home office as he informs Seretse he’s being sent into exile. While Parliament and two prime ministers maneuver the African chessboard, Ruth and Seretse are buffeted by apparently invincible forces. Their peaceful but obstinate refusal to give up leads to the film’s rousing final scene.  

Oyelowo is dignified and charming enough as a suitor and then as a husband, but becomes truly electrifying the few times he gets passionate about his country and raises his voice in ringing tones. Clearly it's not just the royal title he cares about, but improving living standards of the people. 

Pike's Ruth is just a plucky, average, post-war Englishwoman until she is forced to draw on reserves of courage and intelligence to face adversity. The scene of her driving herself to a local hospital with contractions and giving birth screaming shows the stuff she's made of.

Very little time is spent describing Africa and its inhabitants, and Asante settles for generic scene-setting. The local people also are lightly etched, gathering quickly and mysteriously on momentous occasions or bursting into group song to express themselves. Still, Sam McCurdy's cinematography captures some of the lonely beauty of Botswana's dusty expanses and Patrick Doyle's score hits some romantic highpoints. 

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
Production companies: Film United, Harbinger Pictures, Pathe, Perfect Weekend, Yoruba Saxon Productions

Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Charlotte Hope, Laura Carmichael, Jack Lowden, Nicholas Lyndhurst
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Guy Hibbert, based on a book by Susan Williams
Producers: Brunson Green, Charlie Mason, Rick McCallum, Cameron McCracken, Justin Moore-Lewy, David Oyelowo
Executive producers: Guy Hibbert, Cameron McCracken
Director of photography: Sam McCurdy
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Costume designers:
Editor: Jonathan Amos
Music: Patrick Doyle

Not rated, 111 minutes