A United Kingdom (12A) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Amma Asante, US/ UK/ Czech Republic, 2016, 111 mins

Cast:  David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport

Review by Carol Allen

This film is based on a largely forgotten piece of history, which has been approached by director Asante and writer Guy Hibbert in accordance with contemporary sentiments to make an absorbing and effective love story with a political edge.

The film begins in post war London 1947 – all smog and dreary wallpaper – when black law student Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) meets white office worker Ruth Williams (Pike).  Drawn together by their shared passion for jazz, they fall in love and get married. Their romance is though complicated not only by the fact that black people are unusual in London at this time and likely to encounter racist abuse and worse when seen out with a white woman but more importantly Seretse is the king of his people in his native Bechuanaland (now Botswana).   So not only do Ruth’s parents oppose the match but so too does Seretse’s uncleTshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who is acting as regent while his nephew prepares for kingship and interestingly the British government does too, in the person of oily diplomat Alistair Canning (Davenport).   The reason being that Bechuanalandadjoins South Africa.  The British (Labour) government see South Africa’s friendship as important to the struggling post war British economy and there is no way that the country, which is in the process of introducing apartheid, is going to tolerate a mixed marriage on its doorstep.

Defying them all, Seretse takes his new bride back to his kingdom where he wins over his people but not his family.  In a powerful scene Tshekedi’s wife (Abena Ayivor) tears Ruth off a strip for threatening the family’s centuries old lineage and traditions.  The British government uses the family dispute to exile Seretse from his homeland, leaving Ruth alone in a strange country pregnant with their first child.  The reason – politics again and money.  It looks like there are diamonds under the soil of Bechuanaland – something which Seretse could use for the benefit of his people provided he can protect the country’s rights from commercial and foreign interests.

The casting of two such strong actors in the leading roles is a smart move. Oyelowo and Pike make a convincing and charismatic couple.  Oyelowo delivered some powerful speeches when he played Martin Luther King and he does the same here.  He also gets us rooting for him throughout.  Pike as Ruth, who is not exactly out of the class ridden British top drawer, has the same steely determination as other women who helped change the course of history.  There are other good supporting performances apart from those already mentioned. Nicholas Lyndhurst as Ruth’s father; Terry Pheto as Seretse’s sister who becomes Ruth’s close friend;  Jack Lowden as the young Tony Benn, who takes up the cudgels on behalf of the couple against his own government and a neat cameo from Anton Lesser as a fretful Clem Attlee.

The themes of racism and political self interest relate the film effectively to today’s world while Oyelowo and Pike give it the necessary strong human impetus.

A post script to the film tells us that Seretse, who outwitted his opponents and then regained control of his country in the 50s by becoming president through democratic elections, led his people to independence in 1966, going on to make Botswana one of the most prosperous states in Africa.