A powerful, historically-based yarn about bigotry and politics, A United Kingdom tells of the rise of Botswana as an independent nation. Based upon fact, it also happens to be a rich and respectful love story.
In 1947 Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo – Selma), a brilliant young African law student, met Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl), a young white woman from a modest English working family. It was love at first sight. He proposed to her a few weeks later and she immediately agreed. But their path in life was far from easy. Seretse was an African prince, studying to prepare for his responsibilities as king of the Bangwato nation in his native Bechuanaland. And bringing home a white woman who would become his queen flew in the face of his people’s traditions. Even his beloved uncle Tshekedi, who had been acting as regent since Seretse’s father died, was firmly against the idea. The couple’s marriage plans also caused disruption in Ruth’s family.
Their problems became even more complicated. The British government became involved and in South Africa, which shared a border with Bechuanaland, and where the infamous apartheid racial segregation laws were about to be introduced, the reaction was furious. The couple’s union sparked an international incident that would continue for years.
A United Kingdom is directed by Amma Asante (Belle). It is written for the screen by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky), who adapted it from Susan Williams’s book Colour Bar. Assante made a deliberate choice to tell the story through the eyes of both Seretse and Ruth. She said black audiences would “recognise the experience of being ‘the other.’ But when Ruth arrives in Bechuanaland, it’s she who is the ‘outsider’ and she’s regarded with suspicion. “So you’re dealing with the ‘other,’ whether it’s him in London or her in Africa. Each is in the other’s land.” Assante wanted to show Ruth desperately seeking to be accepted by the people of Botswana. She was not a “white saviour”, rather she needed them to support her, and it was as part of that community that she and they became masters of their own fate.
A United Kingdom sells a formidable and enduring message, namely that intelligence, perseverance and morality can win the day, but not without facing up to massive stumbling blocks along the way. The two key characters are painted as learned, lucid and decent and the principal English players as scoundrels trying to defend the indefensible. In that way, it is not at all difficult for us – as viewers – to build a strong affinity to Seretse and Ruth. Oyelowo and Pike do fine jobs inhabiting these personas and imbuing them with heart and soul. Likewise Jack Davenport as Sir Alistair Canning, a high ranking British diplomat whose so-called “convenient” explanations as to why the Brits took the route they took, serve as a constant thorn in Seretse and Ruth’s side. From an audience perspective, he is the villain you feel like throwing putrid fruit at and he certainly succeeds with aplomb in pushing our buttons.
A United Kingdom tugs at the heartstrings and, perhaps, has a tendency to overplay the sentimental card on occasions, but it still provides plenty of impact. Even though it concerns relatively recent history, it is a story I knew nothing about. The fact that it is based upon reality undoubtedly gives this biographical drama extra clout. Rated PG, it scores a 7½ out of 10.
Director: Amma Asante
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike
Release Date: 26 December 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television