It’s a true story of star-crossed lovers with the British government on one side, and the regent Chief of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) on the other. With warmth and idealism, director Amma Asante delivers the tale of imperialism and racism as she recovers a shameful chapter in British history.
A United Kingdom is an interesting choice to open the BBC First British Film Festival, which usually kicks off with a light-hearted, nationalist feature. This choice to precede with a film dusting off Britain’s dark success as an empire reflects the current Brexit climate, decline of its kingdom and the enduring discrimination against minorities worldwide.
With screenwriter Guy Hibbert, Asante portrays the story of the mixed-race power couple whose love challenged apartheid in 1940s Britain and Africa. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is a young man studying law in London 1947 and a Prince of Bechuanaland, a British protectorate which submits to imperial rule for the sake of security and stability. Seretse falls for loner Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and so begins a whirlwind romance with a montage of dancing, gifts of vinyls and secret rendezvous marking the restrained and very British chemistry. Defying warnings from governments and disowned by their families over the impossible inter-racial romance, the couple voyage to Bechuanaland only to be met with the suspicion of the local people and horror from Her Majesty’s Government, who are terrified of South Africa’s reaction and the potential loss of its gold and strategic minerals.
The smug Brits do all they can do destroy the marriage, with bigoted Sir Alastair Cumming (Jack Davenport) and Tom Felton weaselling their way into the couple’s life as invasively as they can. On behalf of Britain, they forcefully undermine Khama’s legitimacy which leads to a brutal, lifelong exile from his homeland and now pregnant wife. As Seretse is imprisoned on the margins of London and Ruth is stranded in her backwards new home, it is when they are wrenched apart that the couple’s chemistry gains soul as they play their small moments with sincerity in the film’s heavier second half.
Oyelowo gives poise and stillness capable of delivering iconic, stirring speeches as the rightful king. The couple’s separation gives the story anguish and poignancy, as much of its appeal lies in watching the two work for a reunion while forces conspire against them to create an independent, prosperous future.
While it may be simplistic to illustrate agonising events of history through a romance with a handsome prince, A United Kingdom is more about the ways private attitudes shape a nation’s identity. Golden panoramas and ample three-piece suits makes for a visually striking film and, when read as the true love story it is, one will believe that love can conquer all.
Reviewed by Hannah Lally
Rating out of 10: 8