Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) is introduced to law student and heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) at a party, and the two quickly become inseparable, despite the barrage of abuse and familial splits that arise from their interracial relationship. After Seretse is called to return to his home of Bechuanaland (later known as Botswana) to take his place as King, the couple must face the reality of the controversy of their marriage, particularly as the UK government works to appease the Apartheid era South Africa.
It’s not hard to see why such a story would inspire any film-maker, much less Bafta winner Amma Asante, whose previous film Belle took a similar step of filling in the gaps of history left by a white-washed cultural narrative. Outside of the evident historical importance, the central love story between Ruth and Seretse is also the stuff of cinematic dreams, so a combination of revolutionary anti-colonialist drama and ‘love conquers all’ romance should be a slam dunk. Ultimately, while there is much to admire in this deeply watchable film, its aims are somewhat thwarted by its ambitions.
While the content is new – and depressingly uncommon given the British film industry’s penchant for period dramas – the execution feels at home with its many predecessors in the genre, with sweeping landscapes and absolute conviction to the overwhelming romanticism of its central pairing. Both Pike and Oyelowo are wonderful, with charming yet restrained chemistry that convinces even as the pair are separated by thousands of miles. Oyelowo is a stand out as the passionate yet conflicted Seretse: He is undeniably dedicated to his duty yet remains an optimistic romantic, even in the face of multiple governments decrying his marriage. Very few actors can balance steely decorum with ground-swelling oratory like him. The supporting cast are ably led by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton as gleefully smug government figures working to undermine the Khama marriage as well as the growing scepticism of British rule in Bechuanaland.
A United Kingdom is smart to focus more on the marriage than the context in which it survives, and Asante keeps things relatively restrained, even as the temptation to add swelling string sections and saccharine speeches appears. Ruth is earnest but clearly in over her head, and her first meeting with the women of Bechuanaland acts as a stern wake up call, reminding her of her inherent privilege and the damage that may cause, even as she means well. The personal stands in as the political, although as the film progresses, one wishes the latter had more room to breathe.
The major issue with the film is that lack of breathing space. So much history is covered in just under two hours that things feel rushed. The central relationship goes from courting to marriage so fast, and scenes with Seretse confronting the British government, his own family and tribe, and the growing press interest offer only perfunctory knowledge for the viewer before speedily moving into the next chunk. Those moments that stand out – Ruth’s growing relationship with the women of the tribe, the Tories Versus Labour parliament battles on Seretse’s behalf, the separation of the Khamas by a continent – struggle for time to make a real impact on the viewer because there’s so much to get to. The entire film ends up feeling like a BBC 3 part mini-series cut down to one feature length movie, so it can’t help but feel a few shades short of the spectrum.
That being said, there’s still much to enjoy – Asante’s scope is hugely admirable, the cinematography is beautiful, Pike and Oyelowo are beautifully tender in their performances and as a couple, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see oft-ignored history brought to the forefront with such passion. As a romance novel reader, this is one of those films that feels tailor-made for that crowd, in the best way possible, but it’s also a crowd-pleaser – deliberately so, because such stories deserve to be.