Amma Asante’s latest film, A United Kingdom, tells the real-life story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a prince who nearly lost his throne and country simply because he wanted to follow his heart. A member of the royal family in his native Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana), Seretse meets and falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman with no royal lineage, while studying in London in 1947. Despite the racial climate in London and Africa, South Africa was on the eve of launching the apartheid movement, Serestse and Ruth ignored the warnings from those around them and proceeded to get married. Thus making Ruth the queen of a country she had never even set foot in. As one can imagine, an interracial marriage, let alone one of this magnitude, sent shockwaves through both of their lands.
At the request of Seretse’s uncle, who disapproved of their union, and worried about their partnership with South Africa, who were secretly trying to strip Bechuanaland of its natural resources, the British government did everything they could to deny Seretse of his birth right. Claiming that they were merely trying to stop a pending war between those who supported Seretse and those backing his uncle, the government withheld documents proving Seretse was fit to lead, tried to lure Ruth away from her husband and even imposed a five-year exile from his homeland on Seretse. Despite all of this, the love between Seretse and Ruth never faltered. Instead it grew stronger and ultimately changed the course of an entire country in the process.
Crafting a crowd-pleasing love story that does not neglect the cultural significance at its core, the film marks another confident leap forward for Asante. While her talents were evident in Belle, she really hits her stride with this emotionally charged tale. Asante does a wonderful job of giving equal weight to the us against the world romance and the political storm that occurred as a result. In highlighting the extraordinary lengths that the British government went to in hopes of forcing Seretse to do their bidding, Asante not only strengthens the overall impact of the love story, but also offers some biting commentary regarding the overreaching hand of Western governments. The biggest gut-punch that Seretse receives is not from his uncle’s actions, but the symbolic one from the likes of Winston Churchill and other politicians who used his pain for their political advancements.
Asante also deserves credit for how well she subverts the outsider narrative by making Ruth the stranger in a foreign land. Rosamund Pike is wonderful in the role of Ruth. Providing the character with both vulnerability and inner strength, Pike expertly conveys the complexities of a woman who has been thrown into a racially charged situation that has far greater ramifications than she could ever imagine. Her chemistry with Oyelowo, himself a force to be reckoned with in the film, seems almost effortless.
Avoiding many of the common tropes that are often found in narratives like this, A United Kingdom is a film that is not afraid to have a conversation about race relations, while simultaneously championing those who fought for love and equality for all.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage. The film opens in Toronto today