Our tale begins in London post-Second World War, as Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) sets off for a spontaneous night out with her sister Muriel (Laura Carmichael). It’s at the party they attend where her gaze meets that of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) across the room, and following a small handful of dates, the pair fall hopelessly in love with one another and then he asks for her hand in marriage. A straightforward series of events, you would assume, but given the colour of his skin the pair are met with much vitriol from the local community, including the bride-to-be’s father George (Nicholas Lyndhurst).
Matters are complicated further when Seretse reveals that he is the descendant of a king in his homeland of Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana) in Africa, and he’s to return home to lead his country. It transpires his people are not particularly fond of the forthcoming marriage either, which becomes a matter of political urgency, with British diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) vying desperately to intervene, as well as the apartheid government of South Africa.
A United Kingdom represents a unique approach to interracial prejudice, as while we’ve seen stories before of the horrendous reaction to such a situation from the white community – with fellow festival picture Jeff Nichols’ Loving examining just that – it’s seldom seen to explore the backlash from the other side, which presents the more intriguing elements of this narrative. Though naturally it’s impossible to comprehend why the English are so irrationally against this relationship, when you hear the concerns that derive from the local women of Bechuanaland, how Ruth Williams is not representative of their culture, nor a symbol of their struggle, particularly at a time where race relations were strained in Africa (to put it lightly) – it opens up a new debate, and while you still root stringently for the core romantic narrative, it still makes you think.
David Oyelowo turns in a remarkable performance in the lead role, as a feature that will be remembered primarily for the astonishing turns from the leading cast. There’s one scene in particular – when delivering a rousing speech to the tribal committee to convince them that his wife is the rightful Queen of their nation, that is enough in itself to land this talented performer a few nominations this awards season. On a more negative note, and perhaps the only stand-out criticism of this endeavour, is the swiftness of the opening act, as we move so quickly, from the moment Ruth and Seretse meet, to the moment they marry. Considering the film is built around the strength in their love, as one so strong she’s willing to move continent for it – it would be beneficial to spend more time in the early stages, get to know them as they get to know one another. Instead it feels somewhat hurried and when he proposes we aren’t invested (yet) in a way that we should be.
Nonetheless, the film looks remarkable, and much like Asante’s preceding picture Belle, there’s an indelible charm and striking aesthetic that makes for such absorbing cinema. Britain is painted in a rather reprehensible light of course, but deservedly so – this is an important story that needs to be told, and how thankful we are it’s been left in such capable hands.