Centred on the relationship between Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (played by Rosamund Pike) and the anarchy that followed their marriage in 1948, A United Kingdom presents this enchanting (and largely untold) love story in a pure and simplistic style.
There’s a spark when Seretse and Ruth first make eye contact and that alluring bond extends throughout the film.
With the union between black and white an oddity at the time, the couple seem to have met with resistance from all angles – not least Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama (played by Vusi Kunene), who rejects his nephew’s decision to marry a white woman and subsequently pleads with him to accept this decision and move on. Eventually this leads to Tshekedi plotting alongside the British in a bid to have Seretse dethroned.
Having initially rejected the idea of a white woman ruling their land, tribal leaders accept Seretse’s impassioned plea for acceptance, allowing him to take his place as king. This see-saw conflict doesn’t end here, as the British scramble to find any means possible to annul this marriage and Seretse’s claim to the Bechuanaland throne.
It’s compelling how, despite the gravity of their situation and the implications it carries, this couple seems to treat it all as an inconvenient stumbling block in their “fairy tale”. Even when Ruth’s own father objects to the idea of his daughter marrying an African (never mind black) man and disowns her, she remains unphased. Even when the whole world seems to be plotting against them, they shrug it off and hold strong.
Perhaps it’s this conviction that allows for the exceedingly dramatic subplot that sees the British government ingratiate itself to the South African government – which, having just established its apartheid regime, is desperate not to allow this marriage to take effect – and kind of play second fiddle.
Much of A United Kingdom was shot in the original locations where events took place and an authenticity resonates throughout. What’s missing is a bit more context as to the South African situation and how strong an influence that had on this story.
But what the movie lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in solid acting and a compelling (and convincing) love story. Oyelowo’s command as the lead makes a great case for the doing away with Hollywood’s bias against black leads.
Director Amma Asante also deserves a notable mention for masterfully channelling the composure and elegance that made Oyelowo’s award-winning role as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma so compelling.
And for her role as Seretse’s fierce and largely unheralded sister, Naledi Khama, Pheto was recently nominated for Best Supporting Actress at this year’s British Independent Film Awards.
It’s refreshing to watch household South African stars such as Pheto and Kunene acting side by side with international stars.
More of the same, please.