Film review: Love breaks racial boundary in A United Kingdom

It is about the courageous romance between African nobleman Seretse Khama and the British clerk Ruth Williams – one that made headlines in the 1940s.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in the film A United Kingdom. Stanislav Honzik / Twentieth Century Fox
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A United Kingdom

Director: Amma Asante

Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Jack Davenport, Jack Lowden

Three stars

British filmmaker Amma Asante returns with A United Kingdom, her third film as director and the follow-up to her well-received 2013 movie, Belle. Like that, this is a real-life story that has fallen between the cracks of history.

It is about the courageous romance between African nobleman Seretse Khama and the British clerk Ruth Williams – one that made headlines in the 1940s.

The story begins in 1947 as the bright working-class girl Ruth (Rosamund Pike) meets Seretse (David Oyelowo) at a dance in London. He is in the country studying law. But what he does not explain, initially anyway, is that he is heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland, the African country that was later to become Botswana after gaining independence from Britain. That is still almost two decades away, and the script by Guy Hibbert (who wrote the excellent drone drama Eye in the Sky) concentrates on the immediate fallout after Seretse and Ruth get married.

While Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) objects to their union, that is the least of their problems. When they return to Bechuanaland, Seretse must make peace with the tribal elders, who object to him bringing a white woman home as their nation’s queen-in-waiting. Worse still, the British government plots against the couple, with diplomats desperate to appease their counterparts in the neighbouring mineral-rich but Apartheid-divided South Africa.

What follows is heart-wrenching, with Ruth and Seretse kept apart by unfeeling bureaucracy, unable to see each other for years, separated by thousands of miles.

Asante errs on the side of tasteful; the emotions aren't stirred quite as much as you'd hope, despite committed performances from Pike and Oyelowo, who offers yet another impressive portrayal of a dignified leader after playing Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. The scene where he breaks down in tears on the phone to Ruth after years is particularly moving.

Yet there are times when Assante’s film feels rather two-dimensional. The British officials – Tom Felton’s civil servant and Jack Davenport’s oily Sir Alistair Canning – are very much the stereotypical villains of the piece.

Jack Lowden, the young British actor soon to be seen in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, pops up as a young Tony Benn, offering up a left-wing conscience.

For the most part, A United Kingdom works best when it concentrates on the powerful, enduring love story between Seretse and Ruth.

artslife@thenational.ae