A solid, well-acted tribute to one of the great love stories of the 20th century
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Before we get started, a confession: I’m entirely unfair on historical dramas. I expect too much, and dismiss too quickly. As soon at the phrase ‘based on a true story’ bounds into view, it colours my viewing.
Late in A United Kingdom, there is a tense meeting between Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) the British government representative of South Africa, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and his wife Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Canning, facing the camera with his back to his guests, recounts information that everyone present has to already know. I know this sort of thing is just a combination of narrative shorthand and staging necessity. In any other film, I wouldn’t notice it, but here it sticks out. I mention this because the movie left me slightly cold, and I think it’s my fault.
Opening in late 1940s London, the film follows Seretse and Ruth as they meet, fall in love, and inadvertently cause an international scandal. Being a mixed race couple in itself is enough to get them shouted at in the streets, and causes Ruth’s father to disown her, but there are far greater consequences in this case. Seretse is Prince of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) and heir to the throne. His family are suspicious and angry about a white British woman becoming their queen. The British authorities will do anything to avoid offending newly apartheid South Africa and attempt to drive the pair into exile.
Director Amma Asante (Belle) has coaxed wonderful performances from her leads. David Oyelowo, it seems, can become any emancipatory figure requiring a quiet nobility and gravitas. He effortlessly brings these qualities to Khama. He has an imposing physique and keen intellect and doesn’t shrink from a fight, but he has a tender and emotional quality, particularly around Ruth.
Ruth is brave and unfussy and quietly optimistic, determined to get on with things, no matter what happens. There are several moments Seretse would simply crumble without her. Her warmth and steel are nailed by Pike. And Jack Davenport brings enough humanity to his self-satisfied authority figure that we at least understand him.
The problems with A United Kingdom are just those of any biopic – too much has to be crammed in. Too many of real life’s edges have to be smoothed over. The leading pair make a wonderful established couple, but their courtship feels rushed and paper thin. A United Kingdom tells a singular and wonderful story, and perhaps that’s the problem. Ruth and Seretse overcame unimaginable odds, withstood unimaginable pressure and ultimately guided the country they reigned over into peaceful democracy. And they could only do it because they had each other.
Julius Nyere, another key figure in early African independence, called it “one of the greatest love stories in the world”. I think he’s right. Assante has given the pair a rock solid drama, but somehow that doesn’t feel like enough.
A United Kingdom is available in Australian cinemas from Boxing Day
Image courtesy of Transmission Films