Amma Asante, Bamangwato tribe, Bechuanaland, David Oyelowo, Drama, Historical drama, Jack Davenport, Literary adaptation, Marriage, Politics, Review, Romance, Rosamund Pike, Ruth Williams, Seretse Khama, Tom Felton, True story
D: Amma Asante / 111m
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Anton Lesser
In 1947, Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (Oyelowo) was studying law in England when he met and fell in love with Ruth Williams (Pike), a clerk at a London-based law firm. Poised to inherit the position of King, Seretse’s relationship with a white woman caused concern among both the British government (who ruled over Bechuanaland as a proctectorate), and Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi (Kunene), who was ruling as regent until Seretse was ready to ascend the throne. Faced with opposition on all sides – Ruth’s father effectively disowned her – the couple ignored warnings and approbation and eventually married in September 1948.
A political maelstrom ensued, and all intended to ensure that Seretse never became King. The British government, in the form of Alistair Canning (Davenport), their representative in South Africa, attempted to bully Seretse into renouncing his claim, but he stood firm, and both he and Ruth travelled to Bechuanaland (now modern day Botswana) to begin their life together. They received a muted welcome, with Ruth being treated with hostility by Seretse’s family, and Seretse’s uncle refusing to accept the marriage, or Seretse’s wish for them to work together to solve their country’s problems. With the people of Bechuanaland supporting Seretse’s claim to the throne (and his marriage), the British government tricked him into travelling to Britain, where in 1951, he was promptly informed that he and Ruth were being exiled from his home country for a period of five years (fortunately, Ruth stayed behind).
Back in Bechuanaland, Ruth discovered that she was pregnant. Her predicament proved beneficial in that it brought her closer to Seretse’s family, particularly his sister, Naledi (Pheto). With the women of Bechuanaland beginning to support her as well, Ruth did her best to support Seretse from afar, but with the British government proving intransigent in their attitude toward him, the would-be King was hindered at every turn. Eventually he found backing and support from members of the Labour Party, including Tony Benn (Lowden), and pressure was brought to bear. With the people of Britain voicing their dismay at the way in which Seretse and Ruth were being treated, a solution seemed on the horizon when Winston Churchill, ahead of the next General Election, announced he would rescind Seretse’s exile if the Conservatives won. They did win, but Seretse’s exile became even more of a political hot potato…
The story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams has been filmed before, as a TV drama in 1990 called A Marriage of Inconvenience. But where that version ran to an hour and focused more on their romance than the political upheaval that surrounded them, Amma Asante’s follow up to Belle (2013) aims to be a more comprehensive look at the trials and tribulations that affected both Seretse and Ruth, and an entire country. But as with so many historical dramas that have been made in recent years – The Birth of a Nation (2016), J. Edgar (2011), The Monuments Men (2014) – getting the balance right between historical accuracy and telling a compelling story is often the biggest problem of all. And so it proves with A United Kingdom, a movie that sets out to tell a fascinating tale wherein true love really does conquer all, but which somehow manages to fall short of making the impact it that should.
It begins well, placing the audience firmly in heritage picture-land, with convincing depictions of post-war London: its foggy streets, stoic populace, and rationing-led austerity. Seretse and Ruth’s courtship is depicted with a great deal of charm and it’s easy to see why these two fell in love with each other so easily and so readily, and despite the obvious social disapproval they would encounter (and on both sides of the racial divide, a theme that continues in Bechuanaland). Oyelowo and Pike have an easy-going chemistry, and it’s a delight to see them bring Seretse and Ruth together. Even the introduction of Davenport’s sneering, arrogant government representative can’t derail or diminish their love for each other. But this isn’t just a love story, it’s also a political drama, and once the movie switches from the gloomy back streets of London to the colourful plains of Bechuanaland, the movie changes tone and emphasis, and in doing so, loses sight of what has, up until now, made it so effective.
The trouble is that Seretse and Ruth’s relationship actually ceases being as relevant as it was before their arrival in Bechuanaland. Once there, the movie has to deal more directly with tribal politics, colonial do’s and don’t’s, government machinations, and the consequences of exile. Against all this and as a couple, Seretse and Ruth are required to take a back seat, as the wider world becomes more and more involved in their plight. Canning’s ruses and double dealings keep them marginalised, while the key to all their worries, Seretse’s uncle, disappears from the movie for around an hour. It’s left to British politicians to make the difference that’s needed, while Seretse lets himself become a figurehead for national change in Bechuanaland. And Ruth doesn’t fare any better, becoming a mother and gaining tribal respect. While this is important for the character, it has less impact than Guy Hibbert’s screenplay may have intended, and Pike is too often called upon to smile hopefully and talk in short, clichéd bursts.
Playing yet another important black historical figure after Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma (2014), Oyelowo is earnest, forthright, passionate in his dealings with Seretse’s people, and as the movie progresses, just a little on the dull side. It’s not Oyelowo’s fault; rather it seems that, by the time Seretse has been exiled, we’ve seen all there is to him. It’s a disconcerting thing to realise, and makes the movie’s second half more than a little disappointing as both central characters take an effective back seat in their own lives. Dramatically this is somewhat necessary – after all, they couldn’t be involved in all the background political manoeuvrings that occurred – but the downside is that the movie’s philosophical tagline, “No man is free who is not master of himself”, doesn’t feel quite as affirmative as it sounds.
Asante at least makes all those political manoeuvrings more interesting than expected (and easy to follow), and there’s some degree of humour to be derived from the way in which Canning and the rest of the British establishment receive their deserved come-uppance, but the movie ends on a triumphalist note that is a tad more simplistic than necessary (though it will send audiences away in a happy frame of mind). She also makes good use of the Botswanan locations, shooting in Seretse and Ruth’s real home at the time, and in the hospital where Ruth gave birth to their first child. Sam McCurdy’s cinematography is suitably drab and claustrophobic when in London, and beautifully airy when in Bechuanaland, making the movie hugely attractive to watch, and highlighting the impressive efforts of production designer Simon Bowles and costume designers Jenny Beavan and Anushia Nieradzik.
Rating: 7/10 – despite some prolonged stretches where the narrative either maintains the same tone from scene to scene, or it repeats itself (any scene between Seretse and Canning), A United Kingdom is still a movie that holds the attention and treats its real-life characters with respect and admiration; though not as powerful as it could have been, it’s still a movie that has the undeniable charm of a well-mounted heritage picture, and more besides.