A United Kingdom is filled with moments of deep, brittle, and slow-burning tension, as it explores the intertwining of race, class, politics, and love, in a story based on true events in the years following the Second World War. Namely the swift love affair and marriage of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a clerk from a lower-middle class family, and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, modern day Botswana but then a Protectorate of the British Empire.
Director Amma Asante smoothly and convincingly demonstrates how the couple explode domestic, social, and international relations as they marry, heedless of warnings from Tshekedi Khama, Seretse’s uncle and Bechauanaland’s regent, and the government of neighbouring South Africa, soon to implement apartheid. The ensuing turmoil leads to Seretse’s exile and conflict within the British government.
Yet the film’s first half hour is disappointingly flat and sappy, each relationship-against-the-odds cliché giving way to the next, with no complex or authentic sense of the relationship’s development. While this might have been an attempt to evoke Seretse’s and Ruth’s whirlwind courtship, the pace instead feels harried – the two walk in London all night, but we only glean this from a lazy fade in from night to dawn, their intimacy suddenly flowering. There are even some odd edits, one scene or mood snapping abruptly into the next, as if there is a rush to get to the nub of the film as quickly as possible, which by contrast unspools satisfyingly slowly: the international reaction of horror to news of the couple’s marriage.
The love story remains at the core of what becomes a stirring political drama, and some of the film’s most powerful moments are its personal, microcosmic ones. Ruth’s first meeting with Seretse’s sister Naledi (Terry Pheto) and Tshekedi’s wife Ella (Abena Ayivor) is an abyss of tension, as they are forced by basic hospitality to bring her a drink. Ruth’s shocked speechlessness in the face of the women’s total scorn as they make clear to her how little she is wanted by their family and their country, and how little she understands her husband’s position and where that leaves his country, makes felt the painfully ambivalent nature of the marriage. We at once see the strength of the couple’s love and their blind selfishness.
The seemingly irresolvable tangle of class and race is conveyed by Asante with clarity, without any loss of its complexity; both husband and wife are in positions of privilege which shift according to whom they speak to, and where they speak to them. In Bechuanaland, Seretse is a wealthy prince; in London, he is beaten in the street for putting his arm around Ruth. Similarly, Ruth is looked upon warily or openly scorned as an outsider in Africa by Seretse’s family and the Bamangwato tribespeople he governs because of the very notion of white supremacy as it becomes the status quo in South Africa. Both actors embody these paradoxes admirably; Oyelowo in particular flings himself into the role, giving a deeply considered and often heartrending performance.
A United Kingdom is sincere but never gushingly sentimental, although it veers towards an ending which is almost too neatly resolved, with Ruth accepted and even celebrated by almost everyone. While Seretse’s uncle and aunt are shown to never be fully swayed by their nephew’s marriage and the manifold ways it has impacted the country, even as they hold the couple’s baby daughter, we are ultimately presented with a version of events which veers unapologetically towards the heartwarming.
A United Kingdom screens at the BFI London Film Festival 2016.
Words by Charlotte Palmer