A true love story gets mired in global politics
February 16, 2017
This film tells the true story of the forbidden love of King Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman from London, which caused an international uproar when they decided to marry in the late 1940s just as apartheid was being introduced into South Africa.
Is there no escaping politics? Apparently not, even with a period love story hitting theaters the week of Valentine’s Day. “A United Kingdom” tells the true story of a couple who wanted nothing more than their Happily Ever After.
If only their union hadn’t created a geopolitical incident.
The movie begins in 1947 in London. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is a law student visiting from Bechuanaland (now Botswana), in Southern Africa. He’s also heir to the throne, a fact he doesn’t immediately divulge to Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white commoner he locks eyes with at a dance. When he reveals his true background, Ruth neither recoils nor rejoices. His royal lineage doesn’t change their fledgling relationship; they still go out dancing, shoot pool and run into each other’s arms at every reunion. In short, theirs is a sweet, joyful love, even if Pike and Oyelowo don’t exactly generate much electricity.
The trouble starts after the two get engaged. Ruth’s father disowns her, but that’s the least of her worries. Pretty soon, she’s getting a visit from Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a generically intimidating British diplomat, who tells Ruth that she’s making a mistake. This interracial marriage could spur hostility from Bechuanaland’s neighbor, South Africa, which is busy establishing apartheid. The Brits, meanwhile, have an interest in keeping the peace, since Bechuanaland is a British protectorate and South Africa is helping England with its postwar debt.
But Ruth is not swayed. Not a single person around the couple wholeheartedly supports their union, but she and Seretse marry anyway. Then they move back to his village, where his subjects eye their future queen warily. From there, the movie, written by “Eye in the Sky” scribe James Hibbert, follows the many obstacles the two face, as England and Seretse’s uncle, who also disapproves of the marriage, work to dethrone him.
Through it all, the couple never so much as raise their voices at each other. Their bond is unwavering. Each new attack only brings them closer.
Although the relationship lacks a certain fire, the acting is superb. Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” could probably give a rousing speech about, say, potatoes. His oratory is tearful yet commanding. Pike, too, channels both sweet vulnerability and willful resolve.
Director Amma Asante also directed “Belle,” another interracial love story, and both movies are undermined by a similar issue: heavy-handed villains, whose predictable maneuvering sucks any surprise out of the story. Incidentally, Harry Potter scoundrel Tom Felton plays a racist creep in both.
Distracting editing doesn’t do the drama any favors, either. Quick cuts — sometimes in the middle of a conversation or before the action has played out — are individually jarring, but also problematic in a broader sense. The movie seems to be racing to show Seretse’s next new dilemma, instead of letting the magnitude of those developments sink in.
“A United Kingdom” is still a remarkable story, especially considering that Khama went on to become the first democratic leader of his country. The movie doesn’t even get to that part of his life. Maybe some true tales simply have too much story for one movie to contain.