A review of a movie about a cross-cultural marriage with political implications.
Love knows no borders. That’s one of the main messages of A United Kingdom. This is a film based on the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a ‘white’ clerical worker from London. The couple wanted to get married and faced a series of challenges to this from family and the powers-that-be in both countries.
The central protagonists meet in foggy post-World War II London. Khama is with friends at a function, he is holding forth on tactical approaches to dealing with the colonial power. The acting of Oyelowo in this scene and a couple of similar ones when addressing crowds in his homeland is electric. Ruth Williams looks at him, rightly mesmerised by his rhetoric and things move rapidly from there. The chemistry between the actors is one of the positive components of the movie. If perhaps this was a purely romantic story, the subsequent familial conflicts and opposition to their union based on their ‘race’ would be enough to provide a satisfying tale. It's been done before in Look Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) or in fact anything Sidney Poitier did in the 1960s’. So while it might not do anything new, such a tale could still work in showing a certain time and place.
What adds another thematic layer to the story is the political implications of their relationship. The post-war eclipsing of Britain meant that the latter's approach to Empire was less confident. In the case of Bechuanaland, the British held ultimate control over the territory while holding up the pretense that the local monarchy and its views were important to them. The movie shows that due to this situation, the colonial authority was sometimes outmaneuvered by Khama. He was an astute political player who knew how to use the public proclamations of the British government against itself to gain moral backing for his aspirations.
At times the movie hits home by outlining the blatant betrayal by both wings of the British establishment. The Labour Government under Atlee is often held in the same saintly regard by British Social Democrats as the Savage Government is by their equivalents in Aotearoa. A United Kingdom shows attempts by a very small minority of Left-wingers to alleviate the plight of Seretse and Ruth (who were physically divided at one point as a result of bureaucratic skullduggery) being countered by the leadership of their own party. Atlee explains that Britain is dependent on South Africa through its gold resources. A policy of Apartheid is about to be introduced, and having a neighbouring country ruled by a black and white couple would cause trouble for that financial relationship. Churchill while in opposition promises to help the Khamas, but upon subsequent election, the old Tory reactionary openly breaks this promise.
While it's clear skewering of imperialism is a welcome theme, there are other bits that are more problematic. For example, the scenes set on location in Bechuanaland only have the locals appear as background props. They mostly show up en masse to acclaim their hereditary leader or to sing spontaneously to his wife. The passivity or adulation of the masses and the rigid attention on the Chief as the focus of the story is a saddening aspect of the film. We are meant to buy into the liberal view of the makers that somehow this is all ok since Khama is a nice guy, speaks well, and evinces a paternal concern for these downtrodden subjects.
As noted, Oyelowo is in top form when talking to tribal members in big groups. One occasion near the end involves a declaration in which he declines a future monarchical role. Khama had spent a large period of his life being trained to adopt such a position so you could say his renunciation was a brave and situationally progressive one. However, it becomes clear his intention in doing so is to put himself forward as a potential leader in a future independent Botswana. He later went on to be the first President of that country. So in reality, the scion of an elite family merely changed titles, while gaining even more power than previously. It has to be admitted that the results have been a qualitative improvement over other places. Post-independence Africa is sadly full of examples of kleptocracy, corruption, civil wars, and a host of serious problems. Botswana is a rare exception to a lot of this. Yet holding it up as a model underplays the reality that there are still disparities in wealth and power that no hierarchical system of authority can overcome.
To conclude, A United Kingdom has bits that hold your interest. The romantic strand of the story is effectively shown thanks to the acting of the leads and is generally the most satisfying element to watch. The political dimension is less adequate. This is so both in the portrayals expected of the supporting cast (the British bureaucrats are viewed simplistically and the common tribespeople are mostly there as human wallpaper) and as noted, its overall liberal stance regarding the desired outcome. So if you want a surface look at a particular time and location that tends to be neglected, or you like a feel-good romance where the protagonists triumph over adversity, A United Kingdom might be your cup of tea old chap. If you want something weightier, you might have to grab your movie passport and head somewhere else.