Whilst first and foremost a love story, A United Kingdom is unapologetic in its portrayal of the impact and influence of British colonialism in Africa and, in particular, the collusion between Britain and South Africa in an effort to dictate the social, political, cultural and economic structures in Botswana, or the Bechuanaland Protectorate as it was known at the time. Great Britain is determined to keep Seretse Karma (David Oyelowo) from taking his rightful place as king of Botswana, with his marriage to Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white Englishwoman, serving as the pretext for their objections, despite the fact that Seretse has the overwhelming support of the people over whom he would rule. Based on real events that led to the formation of a democratic republic in 1966 that saw Seretse elected as the first president, the film begins in the late 1940’s in England where Seretse is studying at Oxford in preparation for his return to Botswana to take over as the legitimate tribal chief. However, reluctant to relinquish the control they yield over the territory and to assuage the concerns of neighbouring South Africa, the British go out of their way to prevent Seretse from returning to his homeland.
It is on the dreary streets of post-war London where our lovebirds meet, bonding at a Missionary Society dance over a mutual fondness for jazz. Given the scale of the story to be told, this part moves pretty quickly as the couple fall madly in love and get married, regardless of the fact that their relationship doesn’t sit well with many, from the drunken yobs on the street who slur ‘keep your black hands off what’s ours’, to Ruth’s father in his declaration that he never wants to see her again. From the couple of tepid dates we see, it’s not easy to understand the strength of their mutual attraction until it becomes clear that they are both prepared to put so much in jeopardy by being together; his future kingship and her relationship with her family. Furthermore, their arrival in Botswana isn’t particularly well received initially either, a situation that delights the pompous, detestable British High Commissioner Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport). However, there is no doubt about the strength of the relationship during the months that follow as they resist every effort to undermine their marriage and Seretse’s vision for an independent nation. Desperate to protect their access to gold and uranium deposits in South Africa, the British cannot be seen to endorse a mixed-race marriage and upset a government who have just introduced apartheid, so Seretse is summoned to England and summarily exiled from his homeland.
Director Amma Assante (Belle) has expertly melded the politics with the romance to make the story appealing for a wide audience. Oyelowo is dignified and charming as a man struggling to find a balance between the two things he loves most; his family and his country. Assante shot much of the film on location in Botswana, including the house where the real-life Seretse and Ruth Khama lived in the early years of their marriage. Needless to say, the rich sun-drenched colours of the Botswana plains are in stark contrast to the bleak, balmy England that Ruth has left behind and, once the initial resistance to her presence is overcome, she transforms from a sheepish suburban girl to a woman of considerable courage and resilience as she is faced with an extended period alone in Botswana while her husband remains confined in England. The two leads have a great rapport and their scenes together reek of genuine affection and good humour. Davenport and Tom Felton are suitably despicable as the bureaucrats who delight in the authority afforded them, while Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael again finds herself cast as the less pretty, less popular sister.
It is always good to reflect on the sins of the past in an effort to avoid repeating them, although, the way in which western nations continue to impose their will over other nations (with the Middle East, rather than Africa, now the object of their attentions) with little regard for tradition, culture, beliefs or, in many cases, the will of the people, suggests that perhaps we haven’t really learnt much at all. Both entertaining and enlightening, A United Kingdom is a timely reminder that the white, western way of doing things isn’t always the best way.