Most of us know the story of Edward VIII, the popular King of England in 1936 who gave up his throne for love. When his proposal to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson was deemed unsuitable and forbidden by the British government, he abdicated after one year of his reign, famously declaring he could not rule “without the woman I love.”
A decade later, another “scandalous” royal marriage shocked the British Parliament, as well as its African protectorate, the Kingdom of Botswana. A young African king-to-be also chose an “unsuitable” bride, who was not only a commoner, and a foreigner, but the wrong color—a white Englishwoman. Their story, less well-known than Edward’s, is told in A United Kingdom, a timely love story for this historical moment, dealing as it does with issues of race, immigration, persistence, and revolution.
The film was directed by Anglo-African filmmaker Amma Asante; her last movie, Belle, told the story of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indian colonies through the eyes of a young black woman raised in gentility by her aristocratic English grandfather. In A United Kingdom, a similar story of political liberation—as Botswana slips out of the yoke of British colonialism—is made personal through the experiences of a protagonist with a foot in both worlds.
We first meet Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the Kingdom of Botswana, as a university student in postwar London in 1947. The spirit of independence is in the air as Britain has just ceded its colonial rule of India. Seretse is discussing politics with his fellow African students at a dance one night when he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), who types documents at a government agency. They talk about jazz: she says she doesn’t trust Englishmen to play it. That night she goes home and looks up Botswana on a map. Next morning, he sends her a Louis Armstrong record. A romance begins.
Their relationship grows, until Seretse receives word from his uncle, acting as regent on his behalf, that it’s time to come home and assume leadership of his people. Unwilling to leave Ruth behind, he proposes marriage, and she accepts. The highest-ranking British diplomat posted to Botswana, Alistair Canning (played to oily perfection by Jack Davenport) quickly informs them the marriage is off, but Seretse and Ruth refuse to comply, and he takes her home to his kingdom.
The Brits are especially worried that Seretse’s mixed-race marriage will sour relations with their important ally, South Africa, which is just beginning to roll out apartheid, its vile program of separating the races. (“Have you no shame?” sneers Canning to Ruth.) Neither are the Africans crazy about the new white queen they consider a foreign interloper. “Were you not a king, would she even look at you?” snipes Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene).
But Seretse pleads his case to the council of which he is chief, challenging his people not to judge his wife by the color of her skin—and they approve the union. Ruth, meanwhile, sets out to earn the respect of the tribal women, including Seretse’s disapproving mother, and his sister, Naledi (the fiercely beautiful Terry Pheto), who gradually becomes Ruth’s supporter and mentor.
Seretse and Ruth face many more obstacles—a period of forced separation, the looming specter of apartheid, and the evil machinations of British authorities less interested in governing Botswana than in stealing her resources. It’s a large canvas, but director Asante keeps it all comprehensible by maintaining her focus on the couple at its center. It helps that Oyelowo (who also played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma) and Pike infuse their roles with a natural, easy rapport based on humor and affection that keeps us rooting for them.
Asante sometimes resorts to standard-issue storytelling moments—the ridiculous pomp of a British official attempting to take over leadership of the council; women rallying around Ruth with a song of admiration. But these moments are effective because the story is so compelling. And so is the prevailing idea that an individual, sticking to his or her principles, is the first step toward effective change.
A UNITED KINGDOM
*** (out of four)
With David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, and Tom Felton. Written by Guy Hibbert. Directed by Amma Asante. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.