Based on a true story
A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante is based on the true story of the troubled relationship between the King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Englishwoman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The union between a black man and a white woman causes rifts larger than either could have imagined. Being set in the 40’s and 50’s, their relationship causes a large amount of unease not only within their own families but in their respective home nations. The film follows the two as their relationship becomes a matter of political interest.
The pair meet in England, where Seretse is studying at university, and instantly, as the kids say, hit it off. The two rapidly fall in love and it’s no surprise when Seretse proposes. The only issue is that their families disapprove and not only that, the British and South African Governments both also disapprove. The Brits are keen to keep the two apart as not to ‘disrespect’ South Africa on the verge of apartheid, with whom they have certain valuable trade agreements.
It’s nice to see a more realistic portrayal of colonialism – as exploitative rather than the ‘good old days’ the right-wing press would have you believe. The British government are cowardly and deceptive in their efforts to keep Ruth and Seretse apart. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s Uncle is the regent until Seretse ‘comes of age’. The decision to bring home a white wife predictably doesn’t go down with him well either nor initially with Seretse’s tribe.
The most remarkable thing about this story is that it’s true. It’s a story about love conquering hate and discrimination and don’t we all need that just about now. Oyelowo is great as Seretse delivering moving monologues to his family and to his tribe. You feel the heartbreak in his eyes. Pike is as good as she always is playing Ruth and really comes into her own as she tries to win over Seretse’s people. Jack Davenport and Tom Felton play British government officials who basically govern Botswana for the British as part of an exploitative deal the two countries have. The pair, tonally, don’t really feel like they fit in the same film as Pike and Oyelowo, who are both excellent. Davenport and Felton are so over the top almost to the point where you’d expect to see them twirling their moustaches and menacingly chuckling to each other in a dark room, slowing stroking a white cat. It’s not really necessary. We get it, they’re the bad guys.
At times there was a little too much intense staring into the distance with a pained expression – from Seretse in particular – that seemed a little heavy-handed and that’s the downfall of the film really. It lacks a certain subtlety. It detracts slightly from the real heartbeat of the film which is the relationship between Seretse and Ruth and the great chemistry that Pike and Oyelowo share. Their relationship feels very real and we’re heavily invested in it early on.
The film deals with themes of racism both on a personal level and on a political level which is a strength of the film but it might be a tad heavy-handed. I feel like the people going to see this film already appreciate that racism is wrong and we don’t really need it spelled out for us. We don’t need the racists to be moustache-twirling villains, we already know they’re the bad guys because they’re the racist dickheads.