Sweeping period melodrama and socially conscious political storytelling are intertwined to satisfying effect in A United Kingdom, the new film from Belle director Amma Asante. Once again turning her hand to a real life tale about an interracial romance, she builds the story of Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) and London typist Ruth Williams around strong performances from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. In doing so, she also undermines many of the expected conventions of such a narrative from nuanced portrayals of tribal perspectives to the dynamics of the central relationship.
Oyelowo and Pike sell that with aplomb, particularly in the early scenes in foggy post-war London when the bored office clerk runs into the charismatic law student at a mission attended by her sister (Laura Carmichael). Pike is often characterised as quite cool but there’s none of that here; she gives a disarmingly moving performance as the young woman from Croydon who found herself being called an African queen. In particular, she’s great in the film’s two most tear-jerking scenes. The first sees the women of the Bamangwato come to accept her as one of them through song, and the second when she is reunited with Seretse and, perhaps more crucially, the father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) who had disowned her when she chose to accept the marriage proposal.
Oyelowo’s Seretse is a little bit less richly drawn that Ruth, but it’s interesting to see Seretse portrayed as the more emotionally fragile of the two. The actor is, of course, more than capable of carrying that off and has previously shown his pedigree in portraying great men and imbuing their inspirational speeches with the requisite pathos. He does so again here when Seretse is first undermined as the rightful air and then exiled by the British government – most regularly represented by the slippery Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) – who are manoeuvring to appease the diamond-rich South Africa who have just introduced apartheid. How much the film manages to stick its landing in dealing with its navigation of the vested interests of individuals being prioritised over those of the populace will probably depend on how much you’re expecting from it. It’s potentially very pertinent in the current geopolitical climate.
Issues of race are handled delicately for a drama that is more commonly painted in broad strokes. The complexities of what a white queen would mean to the people of Bechuanaland are given equal, if not more screen time than the anti-black bigotry coming from the Brits. Seretse’s people, led in his absence by his uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), understandably fear the implications of a European ruler when long colonial fingers are still felt at the throat of their country despite the Empire’s palpable decline. Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert must have considered the same in a climate sensitive to the trope of the ‘white saviour’ character who arrives to elevate a less capable non-western culture. Fortunately, between their focus on the Bamangwato women and Pike’s performance, there’s never too much threat of this.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 5-16 October. Book your tickets at bfi.org.uk/lff.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson