A UNITED KINGDOM
In 1947 Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams (David Oyelowo and Ruth Williams in outstanding, empathetic roles) met each other in a London dance hall and hit it off immediately from the moment they laid eyes on each other and shared their opinions on jazz music. Soon they were seeing each other with an increasing regularity, sensing an increasing intimacy and something bigger than themselves steadily developing between them. It was only time before their escapades would take another more formal tone, and Seretse would pop the question, to which Ruth would accept even if it meant estrangement from her own family and country.
However, while Ruth and Seretse may have been completely in love with each other, they had one hurdle to overcome. For one, Seretse was Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana); Ruth Williams was a white Englishwoman. Their marriage occurred two decades before Loving vs. Virginia would take the US by storm and the ban on interracial marriages would get overturned in the entirety of the country. In the UK, while such unions had occurred, Seretse’s and Ruth’s created an international conflict mainly because of Britain’s interests with Bechuanaland and Seretse’s own obligations, which meant he was slated to marry one of his own.
Amma Assante’s follow up to her previous historical romance Belle, a movie that also explored another controversial figure of African descent who had to endure circumstances that were out of her control, is a less complex feature and plays it very, very safe and somewhat two-dimensional. Scenes of intimacy between Seretse and Ruth, for example, are directed with a sense of old-school, old-Hollywood glamour: timidly, and from a safe distance, as opposed to, for example, Brad Pitt’s and Marion Cotillard’s love scene in Allied which went further (and against a whirling sand-storm). I can only assume that Assante believed the story itself was more important, but as a minor observation, I’ve seen other couples receive the full sensual treatment in other movies — that it didn’t happen here may say something of the type of audience this movie was aiming for.
A United Kingdom manages to, even with some time-compressed events, to present the ups and downs the Khamas experienced during the early part of their marriage and the twists and turns both had to undergo in order to prevail above the bureaucracy of the time and the friction between Seretse and his people. Ruth’s fight is just as intense; to win the love and respect of a people who see her as an usurper to the Queen’s throne (as one of Seretse’s sisters spits at her early on. Her’s is a victory hard won and Assante presents it in a moving tribute the woman of the land give Ruth.
And of course, no movie that depicts a couple overcoming odds would be complete without a couple of good villains, and none are as salient and hateful as those played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton. Both bring that old-school villainy into their performances, and the picture looks the best when Davenport and David Oyelowo lock horns, and when in one short sequence, Pike quietly and defiantly stands up to Felton. A tad superficial, Assante’s film is a crowd-pleaser filled with emotional peaks and valleys and a highly satisfying ending.