November 2016. A member of the Royal family is forced to defend his chosen partner in the face of an unscrupulous right-wing press, with the suggestion in some commentaries of negative racial undertones. It’s hard to fathom, and deeply galling, that this may still be the case but the theatrical release of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom remains a sadly timely one in spite of this true story originating nearly seventy years ago. Beginning in post-war London, it features another head-of-state in waiting in the form of David Oyelowo’s Seretse Khama, next in line for the chieftainship of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana).
Studying law, he boxes between classes and in the evening attends a Christian mission where he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), accompanying her bespectacled sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael). Seretse’s disarming smile and effortless charm win Ruth over and he is stupefied by her feistiness and dazzling beauty. A montage of swinging jazz dance halls, walks along rain-washed night time streets and the age old chivalry of a man offering a woman his coat leads to a blossoming romance. However, their decision to marry sees Ruth spurned by her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst), and their union the topic of public and diplomatic outcry. Paralleling plagues of intolerance, disunity and injustice mean this true story retains a bitter relevance.
In what is an admirably balanced script, Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert draw racial divides as very much a two-way street. A similar – if not more severe – reaction from Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene) is accompanied by a viperish onslaught from his female relatives when the couple arrive to his hometown; Pike’s stunned, fragile silence speaks volumes in what is one of many affecting scenes. Her understatement and stiff-upper-lipped restraint are impressive throughout but one of A United Kingdom’s strongest facets is in presenting its male lead as the more emotionally fragile character. Oyelowo is more than capable in this regard. Ruth’s loving but resolute practicality is contrasted to some degree by Seretse’s enormous heart simply being too big for his body and tears flow more often from his eyes, than hers.
With a government mercilessly concerned only by its assets in South Africa (with Apartheid in its infancy) and the potential conflict caused by the Khama family rift, the narrative makes frequent moves between a dreary, smoggy London and the big blue skies and dusty red earth of southern Africa. The production values, costume and set design remain immaculate in each location: Simon Bowles, Jenny Beavan and Rebecca Alleway are deserving of the praise their respective talents are most certainly due. After Selma, Oyelowo once again here proves himself a magnetic orator. His ability to captivate an assembled crowd – both onscreen and sitting in the dark of a cinema, balanced with the quiet moments of fragility, make for a nuanced performance.
A United Kingdom is a solid, competently made and gorgeously photographed film, but its exploration of complex issues – race, gender, politics and affairs of state – feels rather safe throughout, their full impact and import somewhat dialled back. And though moments of pompous British diplomatic buffoonery (most often from Jack Davenport’s Alistair Canning) may provoke the odd titter here and there, such humour feels rather incongruous given the subject matter. However, there remains a great deal to commend here: no least two British actors at the top of their game and their telling of a story from which we can still learn.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens