Film review: A United Kingdom – David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike bridge racial divide in true-life romance
Story of a clerk in post-war London who falls in love with the heir to an African kingdom suffers from lack of chemistry between the leads and one-note portrayals of British officials trying to keep them apart
Amma Asante’s third film is a tastefully made true-life story, based around a forgotten romance that caused familial, national and international strife.
It begins in 1947, in post-war London, as ordinary clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) meets with a young African, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), at a dance. He’s in the city studying law, but what he doesn’t tell Ruth, initially anyway, is that he’s heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland, the British protectorate that later became Botswana when the country gained its independence.
As love blooms between the two, causing a rift with Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst), Seretse is all too aware that their union will cause issues with his people back home. But what he didn’t appreciate was the way it would affect the British government, which at the time was kowtowing to mineral-rich but racially segregated neighbour South Africa. Seretse’s marriage to a white woman is seen as unacceptable, and the British government does all it can to keep the couple apart.
Their fight to be together is the motor for A United Kingdom (which, post-Brexit, is arguably the best title this year), but the film never leaves you in tatters. Pike and Oyelowo, who is beginning to develop a nice line in playing dignified leaders after his turn as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, are both fine actors, but slightly lack chemistry here. Time passes, with Ruth and Seretse isolated in different countries, but it’s hard to feel their pain.
In adapting Susan Williams’ factual account Colour Bar, Asante never quite achieves the dramatic power she managed for her previous film, Belle, another true-life story that dealt with a mixed-race girl living among aristocracy in 18th century England. A United Kingdom feels rather black-and-white, no pun intended, with the British (led by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton’s officials) all very one-note. It’s all rather obvious, right down to the real-life stock photos over the end credits.
A United Kingdom opens on April 6
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