David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Vusi Kunene. Directed by Amma Asante. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes. 2017.
It is important, first and foremost, to remember that film is a visual medium. It’s an obvious point to make about an art form that forces its consumer to view a series of rapidly moving photographs, but it is also important to remind oneself that, when it comes to relaying a true story through such a medium, the result must not simply coast on the extraordinary nature of its specifics. This is the trap into which Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom falls, unfortunately, for here is a film whose makers seem to have believed that the story they were telling was of more importance than their telling of the story. Even the broad subject matter is fascinating for the previously uninformed, such as myself, who had no idea of the marriage between the heir to an African king and a salesman’s daughter from London.
The heir is Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, offering a fine performance that would make a good companion piece to the one he gave as Martin Luther King Jr.), and as his parents both died when he and his sister (Terry Pheto) were very young, Seretse is ready to take the throne of rule in the British protectorate of Bachuanaland (now known as Botswana) that was previously their grandfather’s. He is soon to return from London, where he has been completing his schooling, to assume his reign, but within the final months, he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), who, unlike Seretse, doesn’t come from great wealth and is white. Their courtship is quick, and when he is faced with a return to his country without the woman with whom he has fallen in love, he asks her to marry him, much to the disapproval of his uncle (Vusi Kunene) and her parents (Nicholas Lyndhurst and Anastasia Hille). She, of course, says yes.
The situation is, to put it lightly, complicated, as it also turns out that neither the African regime nor the British government is approving of this union, especially after it is consummated. For the African tribe of which Seretse is meant to be king, it is a question of tradition: The wife of a king is also their queen, and they understandably see the rule of a white queen as another power move from colonialist England. For the British government, it is a question of decency: Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the government’s liaison to South Africa, and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton), a commissioner, can barely remain discreet about his smug prejudice, which is shared by many whites among the upper class. For Seretse and Ruth, it is a question of love: Theirs for each other is undying, even in the face of such discrimination and a game of proverbial chess between countries.
The problem is that screenwriter Guy Hibbert, adapting a book by Susan Williams, doesn’t offer much insight here beyond what is on the page. Seretse and Ruth have an appropriate sweetness as a couple (Pike is also solid as Ruth, especially in moments when she realizes she has entered situations beyond her control), but they remain cyphers when treated individually. They are defined entirely by their roles as subjects of a biographical picture whose intent seems to be hitting the beats of the story without much to-do. There are scenes of individual power, such a pair of speeches given by Seretse that prove both his worthiness of a position of leadership and Oyelowo’s skill at delivering them, but the whole of A United Kingdom is too broadly drawn to garner much response beyond the kind that one has to the story it tells.