Many films have been made about the apartheid era in South Africa. From Cry Freedom (1987) through to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), most have dealt with the high-profile political struggles of leaders fighting against the system. A UNITED KINGDOM is no exception, but does so through the conventions of a politically charged romance.
Previously recounted in the 1990 film A Marriage of Inconvenience, director Amma Asante (Belle) bases her film on the true-life relationship between the Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and a clerical worker in London. After meeting at a function, Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) fall in love and resolve to marry. However, with the interracial marriage disapproved by the British and South Africa governments, the duo must battle family and government forces to remain together and in Seretse’s homeland.
Wrapping the love story around a tale of complex political machinations, Guy Hibbert’s script is careful to take on board all sides of the debate. After a lightning first act, the married Williams-Khama is confronted by Khama’s family, pointedly asking her if she knows what it means to be the “mother of our nation.” The leads ensure that the focus is never far from them, even during a second act that meanders somewhat, with both Oyelowo and Pike both receiving some powerhouse speeches, along with casually intimate moments to emphasise their love. A who’s who of British character actors (including Jack Davenport, Tom Felton and Nicholas Lyndhurst) rounds out the UK contingent, treading a fine line between moustache twirling and genuine diplomatic efficiency.
Photographer Sam McCurdy’s camera loves both primary settings. The early shots of post-War 1940s London, filled with beautiful foggy, lamp-lit strolls by the Thames contrasts against the golden glow of the widescreen African landscape. It’s a visual love letter to the best of both worlds, often overwhelmed with Patrick Doyle’s score, and a shorthand for the union the film espouses, and the people that populate Bechuanaland.
The film’s feel-good ending is forgivable, especially given the fate of the real couple’s children and the nation of Botswana. There are a few major things that the film glosses over, especially the diamond mining subplot, and the massive amounts of work the couple shared in building a nation in the decades that followed. Yet at its heart, A UNITED KINGDOM is a love story about a couple that desperately wanted to be together, and there is joy to be had in following that journey.