It's London, 1947. The black King of an impoverished African country falls in love with a white working class girl and against opposition for his Uncle, the Regent, marries her. They think their battle will be to win acceptance from his tribe, to be ruled by a white woman. But in fact the greater battle is against the impersonal forces of Cold War foreign policy. For the country is a British protectorate. And Britain is bankrupt and fearful of Stalin. She needs Apartheid South Africa's uranium and gold, and so chooses to overlook her hateful racial policies, and her objections to a mixed marriage in a country on her border. And so this poor star-crossed couple must fight not only the more petty everyday racism, but a larger, political racism, separation and exile, in order to finally stake a claim not only for love, but for independence.
This is a quite astonishing true story, and it's testament to British director Amma Asante's film that I want to learn even more about it. How is it that modern day Botswana (then Bechuanaland) somehow managed to chart a course of relatively stable democracy and affluence, eschewing its destiny to be a political pawn between Britain, Russia and South Africa? I also wanted to learn more about the fascinating couple at the centre of the story - particularly the wife, Ruth. How does a working class girl from London have the courage to go to a strange country and apparently, per the end credits, become a fierce political campaigner and advocate for AIDS victims? Actress Rosamund Pike hinted in a red carpet interview that Ruth's experience in World War Two was liberating and defining and I'd love to know more about that.
What we get in the movie begins with the moment that Ruth and the King, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) meet at a missionary dance. Asante and scriptwriter Guy Hibbert move us swiftly through their courtship, her father and his uncle's disapproval, to an uneasy life in Bechuanaland. We see Ruth make tentative steps to be accepted by the tribe and Seretse struggle to understand the larger political game. The film then becomes essentially a political rather than love story, and I found this almost more fascinating, although I understand why they have to market it as a romance. In particular, the movie is excellent at essaying very quickly in short, acerbic scenes - over very funny but also maddening - that show the uncaring and almost casual power of the British Empire. This is personified in two supercilious civil servants, played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton. Both have a casual patronising air that makes you want to slap them on sight. They are contrasted with a very young Tony Benn MP trying to argue the case with the Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who points out the invidious position in which Britain's economic crisis and the Cold War have put him.
What I like about this film is how balanced it is - between the love story and the politics - between depicting a deep injustice but also the reasons why earnest left wing politicians might have felt they had no choice - between the racism on both sides of the "colour bar". It's also incredibly well acted - particularly by Oyelowo and Pike - but I was also impressed by Davenport and Felton. I have to admit that I didn't find the direction particularly inspired, and the score was rather predictable and basic. Far more could have been done to incorporate the rhythms and harmonies of Bechuanaland rather than just giving us a conventional Western orchestral score. I also thought it ironic that a black female directors allowed her two back female characters - the King's sister and aunt - who both strike you as fierce in early scenes, to be marginalised into smiling agents of Ruth's acceptance. Nonetheless, these are small criticisms in what is an earnest, balanced, often very funny film.
A UNITED KINGDOM played Toronto and London 2016. It will be released in Australia on November 10th, in the UK on November 25th and in Denmark on March 9th. The movie has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated 12A.