A UNITED KINGDOM pits love against racism and international politics
True love may be blissful, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Any given couple may have their share of challenges to their relationship, but they aren’t usually played out in the international press or have the potential to change a long-standing status quo. A United Kingdom tells that story, however, and it does so without ever losing focus on the emotions of the relationship itself.
This film is based on the true story of Seretse Kharma (David Oyelowo, Nina (2016), Selma (2014)), king of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl (2014)), the London typist he falls in love with. They meet in 1947 London, initially bonding over their love of good jazz. As their relationship grows deeper, the first signs of trouble begin to appear: the couple is assaulted on the street by racist thugs and Ruth’s sister warns her that their father will never accept Seretse due to the color of his skin, royal lineage notwithstanding. Despite the opposition, Seretse and Ruth fall in love and when he proposes, a jubilant Ruth accepts.
They have little time to celebrate, however, as the matter of their interracial marriage becomes a flashpoint in the chess game of international politics. South Africa (neighbor to Bechuanaland, a British protectorate) has just instituted apartheid, and the idea of a prominent black man marrying a white woman immediately prompted protests from South Africa’s government. Great Britain, still reeling and in debt from World War II, opts to pacify the uranium- and gold-rich South Africa, declaring an investigation into whether or not Kharma was fit to rule his people based on his marriage to Ruth.
The atmosphere is only marginally better in Serowe, Bechuanaland. Seretse’s people are outraged that he has brought a foreign white woman to rule as their queen, and Ruth is initially ostracized by the entire community, even after the tribal council votes to accept Seretse as their rightful king. When Seretse is recalled to London to address the inquiry over his fitness to rule, Ruth is left to attempt to gain the people’s trust on her own. Their legal struggles (which end up stretching over years) are made all the more painful by the enforced separation, but their steadfast love and loyalty to each other remains constant despite the unending blows and betrayals the world rains down.
A United Kingdom is an incredibly engaging film: from the start you are pulled into Ruth and Seretse’s world (thanks in no small part to director Amma Asante’s exquisite eye for detail in post-war London and Serowe) and genuinely want to see them emerge triumphant. You gasp at their setbacks and cheer their victories. The fact that the film is based on a true story (there are some changes for the movie, including a compression of the actual timeline of events) makes it even more imperative that the protagonists win the individual battles and ultimately the war.
Oyelowo in particular delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. When he urges his people to accept him and the woman he loves, his voice simultaneously strong and pleading, it’s through tears that are genuine. His Seretse seems to have an endless well of patience and passion to draw from; his love for both his wife and his people are a part of his very being. Pike keeps up nobly, taking Ruth Williams from an awkward English typist to a queen who fiercely defends her new home and its residents, even taking on the indomitable Winston Churchill in a challenge that was shown in newsreels back home in England.
If A United Kingdom has any flaws, it may be that it seems to gloss over much of the ugliness that Seretse and Ruth faced as a mixed-race couple. Not that we want to see misery heaped on them, but the film only showcases one instance where the couple is attacked in the street by a racist gang, and the political opposition to their marriage is all couched in Very Polite Snobbery as only the upper-crust British establishment can dish out. The result is that although their struggle for legitimacy as a married royal couple is real, much of it seems dreadfully inconvenient as opposed to devastating. A few standout scenes do attempt to underline the racism at play: when an ill Ruth collapses in the street, no one rushes to her aid.
All of that aside, A United Kingdom is absolutely worth seeing and, in my opinion, absolutely merits an Oscar nomination for Oyelowo at the very least. Go see the movie and then look up the true story of Seretse and Ruth, it will make you appreciate their strength and resolution all the more.