“A United Kingdom” is a sweeping story all about love—a king’s love of country, love of people, love of his wife—set against seemingly impossible political obstacles. Featuring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as a true-life star crossed couple whose marriage causes an international incident, the movie tells a fascinating story in the most melodramatic way possible.
London, 1948. Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Pike) meet at a missionary dance and sparks fly. One whirlwind romance later Seretse reveals that when his education is done he must return to Africa to assume the throne as king of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). “I’ve been thinking about my responsibilities in Bechuanaland,” he says. “I know I will never achieve anything worthwhile if I leave my heart here.” Despite the objections of her traditional English parents—Mom thinks she will change her mind, Dad hisses, “You disgust me.”—they marry, triggering a chain reaction of events in England and Africa that threatens his crown, their relationship and the future of his country.
At the dawn of apartheid in southern Africa their marriage is seen as a slap in the face to the British government and a danger to diplomatic relations with other African nations. On a family note in Africa Ruth is not accepted by Seretse’s relations. “It is audacious to come here,” she is told, “married and present yourself as our queen.”
Question is, can their bond withstand the pressures, both personal and political?
“A United Kingdom” has its heart in the right place. It is an unadulterated romance between a man and a woman who must fight to have their love survive. They say things like, “He scares me a bit… the way he makes me feel,” and stare at each other with moon eyes.
It is also a love story of a man and his country, a king with a deep belief in equality and change. “Independence, democracy, a new Africa. It is time,” he says.
Fine, love is complicated, especially when international politics gets in the way but director Amma Asante paints the romance and the politics with the same melodramatic brush. A heightened love story is one thing, but when it comes to the inner workings of international affairs a little restraint might have made the story of ingrained systemic racism more powerful. Instead we are handed evil bureaucrats, secret dossiers and an almost slapstick villain in the form of the British government representative of Southern Africa, Sir Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport). The only things missing from the performance are the gleeful rubbing of hands and a moustache to twirl.
The couple’s dilemma is real and heartbreaking but the theatrical treatment of their plight feels more crowd pleasing than introspective or deeply felt.
“A United Kingdom” is a beautiful looking movie, with solid if histrionic performances that has trouble balancing the romantic and partisan aspects of this touching real life tale.