“A United Kingdom” tells the true story of a couple who wanted nothing more than their Happily Ever After. If only their union hadn’t created a geopolitical incident.
The movie begins in 1947 in London. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is a law student visiting from Bechuanaland (now Botswana). He’s also heir to the throne. At a dance, he soon locks eyes with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white commoner.
When he reveals his true background, Ruth neither recoils nor rejoices. His royal lineage doesn’t change their fledgling relationship; they still go out dancing, shoot pool and run into each other’s arms at every reunion. In short, theirs is a sweet, joyful love, even if Pike and Oyelowo don’t generate much electricity.
The trouble starts after the two get engaged. Ruth’s father disowns her, but that’s the least of her worries. Pretty soon, she’s getting a visit from Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a generically intimidating British diplomat, who tells Ruth that she’s making a mistake.
This interracial marriage could spur hostility from Bechuanaland’s neighbor, South Africa, which is establishing apartheid. The Brits, meanwhile, have an interest in keeping the peace, since Bechuanaland is a British protectorate, and South Africa is helping England with its postwar debt.
But Ruth is not swayed, and she and Seretse marry. Then they move back to his village, where his subjects eye their future queen warily. From there, the movie follows the many obstacles the two face, as England — and Seretse’s uncle, who disapproves of the marriage — work to dethrone him.
Through it all, the couple never so much as raise their voices at each other. Each new attack only brings them closer.
The acting is superb. Oyelowo’s oratory is tearful yet commanding. Pike, too, channels sweet vulnerability and willful resolve.
Director Amma Asante also directed “Belle,” another interracial love story, and both movies are undermined by a similar issue: heavy-handed villains. Distracting editing doesn’t do the drama any favors, either. The quick cuts are jarring, and the movie seems to be racing to show Seretse’s next dilemma, instead of letting the magnitude of each development sink in.
“A United Kingdom” is a remarkable story, considering that Seretse went on to become the first democratic leader of his country. The movie doesn’t even get to that part of his life, though. Maybe some true tales have too much story for one movie to contain.
“A United Kingdom”
Rated PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality. 1:51. Kentucky, Winchester.