In 1948, Churchill’s reeling post-war Britain and a South Africa at the dawn of apartheid started a fight with two people in love, and lost. In A United Kingdom, director Amma Asante brings Seretse and Ruth Khama (King of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, the First President of Botswana, and his white-British wife) back into the limelight, and her timing couldn’t have been better.
For the wrong audiences, it could grate. Suffering from its edit, the film has a habit of skittering nervously from scene to scene, afraid to linger. Viewers might find themselves feeling more as if they’re watching a montage reel of Oscar-pandering vignettes than a movie, with clichéd dialogue and predictable soaring soundtrack to boot. With its remarkable cast, all this is easily forgiven. Complemented by Rosamund Pike’s steadfast Ruth; David Oyelowo, as Khama, retains the dignity of his Martin Luther King in Selma, bringing with it immense emotional weight. Small but standout performances come from Terry Pheto and Abena Ayivor, as Khama’s sister and aunt, while Tom Felton gives a good effort as the posh, bastard type we know and love.
"When the bigotry of 40s Britain and South Africa might seem all too familiar, A United Kingdom captures a compelling story of warmth, unity and hope"
It would be hard to make a bad film about the Khamas, when through the pages of history they shine through as so sincerely likeable, and when their story offers such cinematic contrasts, a British clerk and an African prince, the towering gloom of London and the burnished, open expanse of Bechuanaland, that, if it weren’t for the lingering bureaucratic tyranny of the British Empire, it could be mistaken for a fairytale. Asante, however, has found just the right time, the right cast, the right balance of personal and political.
Any history lover will know that films such as these reflect the time of their release just as much as the setting. When the bigotry of 40s Britain and South Africa might seem all too familiar, A United Kingdom captures a compelling story of warmth, unity and hope; all from a shedload of black and female talent. Expect to shed some tears.
More like this: Loving (2016)