‘A United Kingdom’ Review: Love in the Time of Apartheid
[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from the Toronto International Film Festival; A United Kingdom opens in limited release this weekend]
There’s nothing wrong with a nice movie every once in a while. Philomena is a nice movie. The Theory of Everything is a nice movie. And such is the case with A United Kingdom, a true-story drama that recounts the marriage between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), prince of Bechuanaland, and a white London office worker named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) that shocked the world and challenged apartheid in the African nation. The film is an oversimplification of this story, sure, and indeed is a bit slight for the material at hand, but filmmaker Amma Asante sure knows how to spin a good yarn, resulting in a film that’s always engaging and entertaining even if it fails to rise above a simple “feel-good” movie.
Seretse and Ruth met in London shortly after the end of World War II, crossing paths at a Missionary Society dance. In the film at least, it’s a case of love at first sight, and the two very quickly become enamored of one another as Seretse wows with his passion and knowledge about African society and politics. Indeed, after their first night out together Seretse breaks the news to Ruth that he is the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland and has been studying in London to prepare to claim his birthright. With his studies complete, he’s on the verge of returning to Africa, meaning this romance will be brief. But after spending more and more time together, the two quickly fall in love, and Seretse asks for Ruth’s hand in marriage.
As one might expect, this does not go over well with anyone at all. Ruth’s father refuses to speak to her if she marries “a black”, claiming she’s ruining their family name, and Seretse’s uncle—who’s been preparing him for the throne—is furious that Seretse would rather marry a white woman than continue the tradition of his tribe—his wife, after all, will be the queen. Complicating matters further, Great Britain has an invested stake in the well-being of Betchuanaland, fearful that unrest in South Africa (which has just instilled apartheid) may make the region vulnerable to the Soviets and put Great Britain’s source of Uranium in jeopardy.
Ruth defies her father and Seretse defies his uncle, so the two marry anyway. Upon arrival in Betchuanaland, however, they finally realize the gravity of the situation, with Seretse’s uncle gathering up his dissenters and leaving to make camp elsewhere. The people that do stay, meanwhile, refuse to warm up to Ruth despite their devotion to their king, further alienating Ruth from this new home.
Assante is far more interested in the results of Ruth and Seretse’s marriage than their relationship at hand, and indeed their courtship is covered in mere montage form, forcing the audience to simply accept that these two love each other very much. It works just barely thanks to dynamite performances and chemistry from Pike and Oyelowo, who have an easy rapport and make for a fantastic team when they’re together onscreen.
Unfortunately, their time together is short-lived. Great Britain seeks to use every trick in the book to remove Seretse from the throne and thus make South Africa happy, going so far as to lure him back to London (without Ruth) and exile him from his own country. From there, the film continues on with Ruth steadfastly remaining in Betchuanaland and Seretse working to secure his return from London, calling upon allies in the British government to help his cause.
Indeed, the politics of the situation are mighty fascinating, and while a further focus on the relationship between Seretse and Ruth may have resulted in a bigger emotional investment, Assante knows how to craft a compelling narrative regardless. Working from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert, the story is constantly compelling, with Assante chronicling the intricacies of governmental politics in entertaining fashion and well-place beats of humor throughout. Moreover, when Assante does spend more quiet time with her characters, she has a solid handle on the performances and crafts one hell of a handsome frame.
And yet, there is the feeling that all of this is a little slight given the gravity of the situation. Should such a heartbreaking situation be rendered with such grand entertainment value? Assante’s balance was a bit more nimble and successful in her last feature, the underrated Belle, and while A United Kingdom is a very nice movie, it’s not exactly a remarkably memorable one.
Regardless, the performances from Pike and Oyelowo are terrific. Pike has been doing solid work for years, but with her astonishing turn in Gone Girl, it feels like she’s finally being given the lead roles she deserves. She brings a restrained strength to Ruth while also allowing for vulnerability, and she and Oyelowo make a dynamite team. As evidenced by his tremendous performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Oyelowo knows how to deliver an inspiring speech. But in Seretse’s quieter moments, Oyelowo nails the weight that this leader carries on his shoulders, while also allowing him to be sensitive and beyond caring for his wife.
While A United Kingdom may not be an altogether brilliant chronicle of prejudice against mixed-race couples or British imperialism or dirty politics, it handles these subjects deftly enough, with Assante once again proving she’s a mighty talented filmmaker with a knack for driving narrative. This momentum is bolstered by charismatic and thoughtful performances from Oyelowo and Pike, which goes a long way towards making this “feel-good” story genuinely feel good without overloading the audience with sentiment or exposition. It’s a nice movie. And sometimes, nice is enough.
A United Kingdom opens select theaters February 10. A lite expansion will follow.