‘A United Kingdom’ Review: David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike Star in a Sweet Biopic About Interracial Marriage
The Belle filmmaker’s third feature tells the real-life story of Seretse Khama, a member of the royal South African family of Bechuanaland, a country known today as Botswana. Khama is known for becoming the first president of his country, founding their Democratic Party and helping his nation establish independence from the British Empire. But all of those political triumphs began with a controversy that divided his family and his homeland.
A United Kingdom opens in 1947 when Seretse, played by David Oyelowo, is finishing up his studies in Britain and preparing to return home to rule as the new king. At a party with friends one evening, Seretse is discussing ambitious ideas of ending segregation and dreaming of a place where racial integration is a possibility. The conversation catches the ear of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a young Englishwoman who catches Seretse’s eye in return. After sharing an evening together, the two begin to fall in love in a sweet romance filled with sharing jazz records, going to dances, and strolling through the park. Though the couple face harassment and dirty looks in the streets of Britain, they’ll soon face even worse opposition from government officials, political rulers, and rejection by their own families.
Knowing he must return to his country, Seretse proposes to Ruth, which quickly draws the attention of the British government. Jack Davenport’s British diplomat Alistair Canning tries to stop the marriage when he pays a visit to Ruth. Introducing her to the word “apartheid,” Canning explains that an interracial marriage in Bechuanaland would cause problems for the British Empire’s control over neighboring South Africa, where racial segregation is being imposed. Seretse and Ruth’s union slowly becomes a much larger controversy when Seretse’s uncle, the current king, outright opposes the marriage and refuses to allow Ruth to be his country’s new queen. The couple wed anyway and, rather naively, move to Bechuanaland where they encounter distaste and disapproval from his royal family and local people. Seretse’s uncle fails to convince his young heir of a divorce and decides to divide Bechuanaland into two rulerships, splitting a country that’s already being disrupted by colonialism.
What ensues is an interesting look at reactions to interracial marriage not often shown in historical dramas. We typically see stories of mixed-race relationships in the context of the American civil rights movement, where couples are subjected to the hatred of white supremacy and racism. A United Kingdom certainly has those moments (particularly in scenes set in Britain), but Asante goes further than that to explore how an interracial couple can disrupt tradition and create enemies out of all identities. The other Englishwomen in Bechuanaland reject Ruth just as much as the local South African women. When Ruth first arrives, she begins to understand the startling effects of her marriage when Seretse’s sister and aunt greet her with scorn, telling her they could never accept a white woman as the mother of their nation.
Much of A United Kingdom follows the political upheavals caused by the Khamas’ marriage, which involved not only Bechuanaland becoming a divided country, but the British Empire manipulating Seretse’s right to rule. Even though the remaining people of Bechuanaland vote for Seretse to stay as king with Ruth as his wife, Alistair, with the help of conniving British representative Rufus Lancaster (a well-cast Tom Felton), finds ways to separate the couple and oust Seretse from the country. As much as the political storyline of A United Kingdom offers an insightful look at racism and segregation through the lens of colonialism and political deception, it’s also the driest part of Asante’s movie. Guy Hibbert’s (Eye in the Sky) script strips the emotional narrative down to a neat and tedious back and forth of political scheming. Despite its fascinating subject, A United Kingdom loses sight of the power of its love story — both Seretse and Ruth’s romance and Seretse’s unending love for his people — and plays like a cautious biopic.
The real treasure of A United Kingdom is the tender chemistry between Oyelowo and Pike, whose scenes together offer the film’s best moments. There’s a sweetness and playfulness to their characters’ romance that convinces you how much these two loved each other and why, despite the consequences, they refused to separate. Asante finds sweet notes of humor in Pike and Oyelwow’s interactions as well, whether they’re teasing each other, tipsy and slow dancing in their room, or the slight hints of silliness in their phone conversations. The two actors are lovely together, and even when Seretse and Ruth are separated when the latter is exiled, the two give rousing performances on their own.
A United Kingdom is a sweet movie, but it doesn’t come close to matching the spectacular nature of the story it’s telling. Seretse and Ruth’s love helped helped bring about a monumental change for the country of Botswana, yet Asante’s film is too much a straight retelling of history to amount to anything stirring. It’s a biopic best described as “nice,” though thankfully its lead performances make it worth the while.