If Amma Asante’s newest historical romance “A United Kingdom” — like her breakout “Belle,” the film is based on a true story and rooted in real emotion — is hamstrung by anything, it’s the necessity of Guy Hibbert’s script (based on Susan Williams’ book, “Color Bar”) to zip over the early, blooming days of the film’s central love story and buckle down on the tough stuff. Asante’s film, unlike other, more “traditional” Hollywood love stories, isn’t interested in the joys of falling in love so much as the ability to stay in love against heartbreaking odds.
The result is a rich, stirring look at one of modern society’s most enduring — and yes, inspirational — marriages, underpinned by political machinations that remain all too relevant.
Picking up in 1947, with the world still jarred by the events or World War II and exhilarated that they are finally over, “A United Kingdom” introduces its audience to popular law student Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, who also produced the project), heir to the Bechuanaland Protectorate (later known as Botswana) throne. Seretse has spent his entire life preparing to rule his kingdom — a kingdom that is also considered a part of the UK, hence its “protectorate” designation — and is expected back in Africa to begin his life as king. Seretse’s (and his country’s) carefully laid plans are unexpectedly thrown into turmoil when he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), and the pair start up a passionate love affair against the wishes of, well, just about everyone.
Asante glides through Ruth and Seretse’s early days — lots of dancing, an increasing sense that their relationship will be threatened on all sides — in order to get to the meat of “A United Kingdom”: Their marriage and its far-reaching fallout. Blinded by love, the pair marry, only later realizing just how many people will be effected by their choice. Namely, every citizen of Bechuanaland.
Asante and Hibbert carefully balance the more complicated political machinations at play, navigating a complex web of players who believe that Seretse’s choice to marry a white woman somehow makes him unfit to rule his kingdom, from his anguished uncle (Vusi Kunene) to a pair of British diplomats (Tom Felton and Jack Davenport) to no less than the entire country of South Africa (again, complicated). The Khamas’ story is one of history’s great love affairs, and when the pair are separated for many months — during Ruth’s first pregnancy, horrifyingly enough — due to the UK’s reprehensible forced exile of Seretse, the film finds its footing both emotionally and politically.
It’s familiar territory for Asante — her “Belle” also used a personal, and true story to shine a light on issues of racism, sexism and colonialism in satisfying fashion — and one she delivers with ease. Oyelowo and Pike are well-matched as the Khamas, able to convey both the early passions of their romance and the harder years with believable and rich emotion. Oyelowo’s Seretse, who is unwavering in his affection for his country and his desire to serve it, continually grows as a leader while Pike’s previously non-political Ruth blossoms into an ardent speaker and defender of both her husband and her adopted country.
Despite the consuming nature of the Khamas’ love, “A United Kingdom” finds room to develop other, also compelling subplots, particularly Ruth’s relationship with Seretse’s sister Naledi (Terry Pheto, who is the film’s under the radar MVP), which grows alongside Ruth’s affection for her new country. Filmed in and around Botswana, Sam McCurdy’s cinematography lovingly lenses Seretse’s homeland and its people, adding a subtle and lovely dimension to the Khamas’ deep desire to fight for it.
Bolstered by real events and true emotion, “A United Kingdom” opts for genuine, hard-won feeling, and the film studiously backs off from cheesy moments or over-the-top revelations. The result is a satisfying look at a romance that stayed strong in the face of great adversity, changing forever not just its dedicated lovers, but an entire country willing to move forward in service to great love and, perhaps more importantly, great respect.
“A United Kingdom” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.