Imagine if your girlhood dreams came true: You met a prince. An honest-to-God prince, who is handsome and kind, and wants nothing more than to marry you and whisk you away to his kingdom to be his princess. That’s actually what happened to 20-something typist Ruth Williams, who wedded Botswana king Seretse Khama. But the story of this British commoner and the royal who loves her became an international incident, because he was Black, she was White, and apartheid was on the rise.
Amma Asante, who awed audiences and critics with the gorgeous and poignant biopic Belle, is back with another true story of an interracial couple who changed the world. In a lively romance in 1947 London, Ruth (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse (David Oyelowo) fall hard and fast for each other, not dissuaded by the slurs chucked by racist strangers, or even the disapproval of her flustered father and his ruling uncle. The pair wed in a simple ceremony, and celebrate their nuptials with a love scene rapturous and tender. Then the British government gets involved.
See, Botswana—then known as Bechuanaland—was a British protectorate, so the UK had some jarring power over the nation, as well as the neighboring South Africa, where apartheid was having a contagious impact. Enter Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter snobs, Jack Davenport and
Draco Malfoy Tom Felton to sniff and say snitty things to try to force the pair to divorce or abdicate. Yet fret not! The Khamas will endure prejudice, separation, and the pressures of prime ministers and royals. Yet they shall overcome, and prove a powerful and long-lasting inspiration locally and internationally.
Watching Oyelowo and Pike dance, flirt, then fall in love is glorious, as Asante drapes them in warm colors and cradles them in gentle framing. When tested, both visibly steel themselves before our eyes. In public, they are unflappable, stalwart and bold. Then in private, they crumble in the safety of each other, before spurring each other on. This acclaimed pair of performers combine forces to paint a love that is vibrant, enviable, and clearly powerful. Even when the world is against them, you understand the Khamas’ fight because of how they spark and grow each other. Without the other, they are not whole. Together, they are not only happy, but also an optimistic force dedicated to making their kingdom better by example.
By focusing so ardently on the relationship between Ruth and Seretse, Asante grounds her film before it gets a bit bogged down by politics. The Khamas story is remarkable. But there’s so much plot that A United Kingdom drags. Asante seems dedicated to hit every detail, from betrayals and banishment to political campaigns and American involvement. Story-wise, some of these events feel like repeated beats. With so many plot points wedged into a runtime under 2 hours, the film is paced at a sprint. At first, I thought the swiftness of the the couple’s courtship and marriage was meant to reflect that it was a whirlwind romance. But as the whole film races by—delivering beats and plot points efficiently but often without elegance—I began to ponder if producers or distributors feared a lengthier runtime might scare off audiences. And perhaps a 3-hour cut exists that allows Asante’s story to better luxuriate in its eras, emotions, and import.
Rushed or not, A United Kingdom is a gorgeous and affecting film. Asante embeds us first in the hard, fast verve of London with its dance halls, intellectual debate, and posh fashions. Then leaps to Botswana, where the landscape is wide stretches of dusk-dusted deserts, studded by wildlife and humble clay huts. There the men wear suits, but without the fine details of London’s elite. The women in simple dresses in bold prints are often crooked by carrying a child, well water, or crops. And through Ruth’s wide eyes, we see the wonders of both environments. Her fantasy realized is not so simple. But it is remarkable, rich with color, alive with emotion. It’s just a shame Asante’s storytelling gets bogged down in the boorishness of bureaucracy. Still, if you’re looking for a film that’s heart-warming and inspiring, A United Kingdom is a sensational pick.