You might be forgiven if you thought A United Kingdom was some sort of history film about the UK. Which it is, but it’s so much more than that.
A United Kingdom tells the true story of a post-war romance that blossoms between typist Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) of Bechuanaland, now modern-day Botswana. The two meet at a dance organised by the London Missionary Society and fall head-over-heels in love with each other. However, Williams soon finds out that Khama is really the heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland, and that he is expected to return and ascend to the throne.
After a whirlwind romance, the couple get engaged and make plans to marry. But their impending marriage draws ire and scorn from friends, family, and even the British government, represented here in the form of Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport). As it turns out, the 1948 general election in South Africa (which borders Bechuanaland) has ushered in the apartheid era, which means that their marriage will have political repercussions beyond London.
It takes a good twenty minutes or so for A United Kingdom to really find its footing. It zips through the expository parts of the story at breakneck speed, almost as if it’s checking off boxes and making sure all the facts are laid out before plunging right into the heart of the matter. Even then, the pacing is still a little sluggish in later parts.
But when it really gets going, A United Kingdom proves to be an excellent historical film, rich in detail and brilliantly acted. There is some fictionalisation and streamlining of events of course, but thankfully director Amma Asante mostly steers clear of any sentimentalisation of its subject matter. There’s also some lovely cinematography as the story switches between the muted blues and greys of London to the warmer tones of Bechuanaland, with sweeping vistas bathed in golden sunlight.
The chemistry between Pike and Oyelowo is undeniable, and as the movie progresses they make it easy for the audience to root for a couple who just want to be able to live together in peace. Theirs is a relationship of equals and is full of a very British sense of decorum. Similarly, Davenport is fittingly poised and imperious as Sir Alistair, a character that embodies all of that notorious British stiff upper lip and sense of superiority.
Fans of other famous British imports will also be pleased to see Downton Abbey‘s Laura Carmichael as Ruth’s sister Muriel, while Tom Felton channels his experience playing the smarmy Draco Malfoy into his performance as the snivelling Rufus Lancaster, district commissioner of Bechuanaland.
Asante has shone the light on a shameful and forgotten chapter of history, and the themes of the movie are unfortunately still relevant. The message is an unsubtle one, though its treatment of racism and prejudice is surprisingly gentle even when viewed through the lenses of a bygone era. But Khama’s stirring monologues to his people are bound to strike a chord with modern audiences, who can’t help but consider the meaning of his words in the context of today’s political climate.
Ultimately, A United Kingdom is a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon, but there’s more to this movie than meets the eye. For one, the spectre of the British empire and its legacy looms large over the entire movie, a reminder of the power it once wielded. If you’re like me – a citizen of an ex-British colony – you’ve been somewhat conditioned to view the British empire and its associated attitudes as antiquated.
But A United Kingdom is set in the late 1940s, merely a generation or two removed from us, and it is unsettling to see such blatant racist and imperialistic sentiments expressed in a relatively modern setting. You might think that political machinations like those depicted here should be relegated to history, but the truth is that at this point in time, it looks like history is repeating itself.
And in that sense, it might be worth taking home some lessons from the movie: How love is stronger than even the most powerful politician, and how resistance carried out in the right way will overcome the oppressors.
A United Kingdom opens in Singapore tomorrow. Tell us what you think of the movie!