London, 1947: Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) lives an unremarkable life, working in a typing pool. One night, she agrees to escort her sister to a meeting of her missionary group. While there, she meets Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a handsome and well-educated young man, and after several more dates, the two quickly fall in love. Khama, however, drops a major bombshell: he’s the young king of Bechuanaland and, having completed his education, will soon have to return to lead his people. But, as anyone can tell you, love admits no obstacles, so the pair marry and Ruth Williams Khama begins to prepare for her unexpected new life as an African queen. But it isn’t all that simple; Seretse is able to cope with the street attacks by ignorant anti-miscegenationists thanks to the boxing training he received at Oxford, and Ruth tearfully but finally accepts her father’s wish never to see her again, but having the British government oppose their marriage is quite another thing. Bechuanaland, now Botswana, is a British Protectorate, so the government non-cooperation really does matter. The British, for their part, hope by blocking the marriage to appease the South Africans, who have only just enacted segregation. But Seretse won’t be intimidated, and he returns home with his white bride, angering not only the UK and SA governments, but also his own people as well as his uncle, who has been ruling as regent in his stead. Luckily, Seretse is able to win back the people’s backing of his kingship with a rousing speech, but it’s not the end of his troubles. Since Bechuanaland doesn’t have its independence, his legitimacy is not up to the Batswana, but the British, who not only deny him his kingship, but exile him to boot. Back in London, Seretse rallies popular support, fighting for years not even to have his royalty recognised, but merely to be able to return to his home country. In this fight, he is aided by a young Tony Benn, and hampered by a curiously offscreen Winston Churchill. After a shamefully long period, Seretse and Ruth are allowed to return to Bechuanaland, where Seretse, still enjoying the people’s success, rises meteorically through politics as a private citizen, eventually becoming the first President of the independent Botswana in 1965.
The journey there is, as one might imagine, full of struggle and triumph. The idiotic policy of segregation, and the colossal mistake of colonialism, haunt the picture, constantly frustrating the day-to-day life even of a King. Seretse faces life with a patient steadfastness that anyone would have to admire; in his own way, he’s not dissimilar from Martin Luther King, a figure Oyelowo has already essayed in Selma. In fact, he’s the go-to for dramas of black history, with rôles in The Help, Red Tails, Lincoln, The Butler, and Queen of Katwe also on his CV. It’s not hard to see why, with his good looks and easy charm. Ruth is a less traightforward figure, undying in her love for her husband, but weaker, worse-equipped for the absurd unfairnesses of life. We might say that while Seretse was born great, Ruth had greatness thrust upon her. Pike is well-suited for these types of rôles, meek English rose on the surface yet capable of great complexity beneath. Elsewhere in the cast, Jack Davenport pretty much does his thing as Sir Alistair Canning, a smug, obstructive bureaucrat, while an unrecognisable Tom Felton plays – well, another smug, obstructive bureaucrat, but one lower down the pecking order and marginally better-adjusted to Batswana culture. These two politicians are fictional, but the very real Tony Benn is portrayed by Jack Lowden, a young actor with an exciting future.
Director Amma Asante surveyed broadly similar themes of race and empire in Belle, a biopic of the enigmatic Dido Belle. The epic sweep of her storytelling hits all the proper emotional buttons, and will frequently bring audiences to tears. It might be objected that her period London, with its streetlamps and heavy fog, is more convincing than her rather plastic savanna, but there is more cinematic precedent for the authentic feel of mid-20th Century London than there is for Botswana, so it is a small objection and one easily forgiven. In any case, the English scenes are the real crux of the film, with Botswana mostly representing a distant dream, a homeland, a triumph, and one all the sweeter for the long journey taken to it.
A United Kingdom is out in UK cinemas today (25th November), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!