Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Amma Asante
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Vusi Kunera.
African history is full of great dramatic stories and rich in themes about the hardships of colonialism, the struggle for independence, war, adventure, exploitation. A United Kingdom is based upon the true story surrounding the founding of the independent nation of Botswana in the 1960s.
At the centre of the film is the romance between Seretse Khama (played with strength and sense of dignity by David Oyelowo, who we recently saw in another true story The Queen Of Katwe), who is the heir to the throne of the kingdom of Bechuanaland. He is studying law in London and preparing for the time when he will assume the leadership of his people. But then he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, from Gone Girl, etc), a pretty white secretary who has been invited to a church missionary dance by her sister Muriel (Laura Carmichael). The outspoken and politically active Khama and Ruth chat and share a dance, and something clicks. Before long they are dating, much to the chagrin of her conservative parents.
When Khama has to return home he asks Ruth to marry him. On returning to his tribal homeland though Khama finds that his uncle (Vusi Kunera) disapproves of the marriage and tries to prevent him from assuming the throne. The interracial marriage also upsets the British government who are keen to maintain relationships with the mineral rich neighbouring South Africa. The government, in the form of Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), sends Khama into exile in Britain, thus separating him from his wife. But the government didn’t count on the couple’s resolve and from two different continents they begin to challenge the might of the British Empire.
Illness, the tyranny of distance, political pressure and racism all conspire to crush the couple, but their sense of commitment and strength carry them through these troubled times. Khama went on to become the first president of the newly created nation of Botswana, and he ruled the country for the next 14 years with Ruth by his side.
The somewhat ironically titled A United Kingdom has been directed by Amma Asante, who previously gave us Belle, the powerful anti-slavery drama, and this film shares a few similar themes. The film has been written by Guy Hibbert (Eye In The Sky, etc), and it follows Ruth’s struggles to adapt to her new home. As with Belle, Asante mixes the personal and political, and directs in unsentimental fashion. This is a touching and powerful drama about romance, intolerance, racism, sexism, the injustices of the colonial past, and the birth of a new nation. It has been beautifully shot by Sam McCurdy (The Devil’s Double, etc) whose widescreen lensing captures some great vistas of the wide open African locations, and gives us a great sense of time and place. Period detail reeks of authenticity.
Oyelowo delivers a strong and passionate performance as Khama who has to convince his own people that he is fit to serve as their king while dealing with the might of an Empire determined to see him fail. Pike is also good and she brings a quite dignity to her performance, depicting Ruth as a strong willed and courageous woman.
A United Kingdom is both a touching and inspiring love story and a powerful political drama about a shameful period in Britain’s colonial past.