Amma Asante’s latest is a beautiful (although flawed) true romance.
A United Kingdom is the latest historical drama from Amma Asante, director of 2013’s Belle about a biracial woman in 18th Century England. This new film is based in a more recent time period — the mid-20th Century. Middle-class British secretary Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl) falls for law student Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, Selma) in post-war London. After a whirlwind courtship, Khama tells her he is in line to be king in his homeland of Bechuanaland (later to become Botswana).
Early days of their romance speed by so quickly that it’s challenging to see much chemistry forming between the two leads. The editing also has a clunkiness in the first part of the film, which makes for an uneven pacing. The couple marries — despite the problems and prejudices they expect they may face—and head to Bechuanaland.
It is in this African country that A United Kingdom truly finds its rhythm. Ruth and Seretse defend their marriage and take on problems together, and the deep feeling between the two becomes far more obvious. A forced exile separates the couple, and the longing between husband and wife shows during long-distance phone calls.
The Khamas fight within the system for the rights of their countrymen, taking on the authorities of the British protectorate. The screenplay pointedly connects the treatment of the people in Bechuanaland under the protectorate to the incoming rule of apartheid in the neighboring country of South Africa. The fear of segregation grasping even further into Bechuanaland is made palpable, giving immediacy to this second half of A United Kingdom.
Seretse also confronts hesitancy from his uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene, The №1 Ladies Detective Agency) and other family towards his relationship with a white woman. Oyelowo plays the leader as a man who is open with his emotions and continually working for the rights of his people. What might have been a messianic figure is given a depth and humanity in the hands of Oyelowo. The actor continues to select projects under women directors, making films with Ava DuVernay, Mira Nair, and Asante, among others. I can’t think of another contemporary male actor who has made such a purposeful decision in their film work.
His performance in A United Kingdom is a large draw for the film, although Pike provides moments of levity as Ruth. She brings an earthiness to the role, signaling much about her character in moments when she has no lines. Sam McCurdy’s cinematography aids in illustrating the dichotomy between the dark and foggy city where Ruth and Seretse first meet and the bright and vast land that is their home. The shots of Botswana even seem tinted in sepia, the warmer tones hinting at the love the Khamas have for their country. Their story is one of hope, albeit a bit muddled at the start.