Most of us have probably never paused to consider Botswana’s road to independence, but as A United Kingdom illustrates, the oppression and conflict that the southern African nation was forced to overcome had its unlikely roots in romance.
Specifically, this true-life period drama puts a fresh spin on familiar themes by detailing how racial segregation and colonialism caused a political movement built more on unity than division.
What starts as a courtship between a 1940s law student (David Oyelowo) and a London office clerk (Rosamund Pike) encounters a host of unforeseen ramifications after they are married. He’s Seretse Khama, the heir to the throne of his tribe in the British colony of Bechuanaland. She’s Ruth Williams, a white English girl from an influential family.
Their interracial relationship meets with disapproval on almost all fronts. Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene) has some pull with the British government, particularly with a high-ranking ambassador (Jack Davenport), and arranges to have his nephew banished before he assumes the throne. Even though Seretse remains popular back home for his visionary ideas, his exile keeps him separated from Ruth, who remains in Africa to avoid bureaucratic obstacles.
There are other factors in play, too, such as the rise of the Apartheid movement in neighboring South Africa and the discovery of valuable diamonds through a top-secret mining operation. However, Seretse is forced to watch from afar.
Oyelowo (Selma) again showcases his versatility in his portrayal of a man who wouldn’t settle for choosing between love and power, but was willing to fight for both. Pike (Gone Girl) also brings depth to her role while conveying a convincing chemistry with her co-star. And that’s Oyelowo’s actual wife, Jessica, playing his rival’s wife on screen.
British director Amma Asante (Belle) manages to avoid heavy-handed clichés during the film’s impassioned speeches about equality and freedom. And the material is staged with sufficient attention to historical context and detail.
That also carries over to the screenplay by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky), which seems to skim the surface on race relations during that era, yet develops intrigue by weaving together its intimate love story with broader geopolitical issues integral to Seretse’s homeland.
Although the slick crowd-pleaser doesn’t take nearly as many risks as its protagonist, the underlying message in A United Kingdom manages to cross geographic and generational boundaries.
Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.