Not every great story gets a great movie, but a pretty-good movie of a remarkable story is nothing to sneer at. That’s what director Amma Asante and writer Guy Hibbert give us in A United Kingdom.
The movie’s title is a bit of a pun. It doesn’t refer to the United Kingdom we all know, the one composed of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to the kingdom (and British protectorate) of Bechuanaland, a landlocked country wedged between the Union of South Africa, German South-West Africa and Rhodesia. (That is, those were the names of the countries back in 1947, when A United Kingdom opens. Today they’re known respectively as the Republic of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe; Bechuanaland is now Botswana, having gained its independence in 1966.)
In the movie, what disunites this kingdom is the marriage of its king, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), in 1948 while a law student at Oxford. His bride is Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a typist at Lloyd’s of London. Now, an interracial marriage in that day and age is sure to be controversial enough, but this one creates an international incident. Not only does Ruth’s father disown her, but Seretse’s uncle and regent (Vusi Kunene) disowns him as well, causing a political rift in Bechuanaland.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, where the white minority is busily implementing its policy of apartheid, the idea of an interracial royal couple to their immediate north is intolerable. And that’s all the pretext required for a couple of snooty officious diplomats played by Jack Davenport (as Canning, the haughty one) and Tom Felton (Lancaster, the weaselly one) to take steps putting this uppity black colonial in his place, and pointing out to this insignificant little secretary that she’s being a traitor to her race.
In history, this all worked out right. Seretse and Ruth Khama stayed together for life; he went on to be prime minister of Botswana and its first president after independence, in which positions he led his country to a state of stability and prosperity rare for sub-Saharan Africa (his and Ruth’s son Ian is Botswana’s president today).
In the movie, the working out proceeds with a sort of stolid predictability, carrying Seretse and Ruth from disappointment to crisis to determination and eventual victory with the clanking regularity of a well-engineered clock that nevertheless could do with a little oiling. Even her father and his uncle finally come around—in the movie’s dramatic shorthand, there’s nothing like a new baby in the family to thaw a crusty old heart, white or black. Along the way everybody from the stars on down comports him- or herself with decorous professionalism; Seretse and Ruth seem suitably devoted to each other, though Oyelowo and Pike seem to be creating the devotion for the camera rather than genuinely feeling it between them.
There’s nothing wrong with A United Kingdom; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the proverbial well-made play. Only the closing titles, filling us in on what happened after the movie ends in 1955, hint at the great story that underpins a pretty-good movie.