A United Kingdom is the kind of historical narrative that’s lovely, if not earth shattering. Anna Asante’s chronicle of the love story between Seretse Khama, the Prince of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), and Ruth Wilson, a Londoner, enjoys a top flight cast with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as the international (and unintentionally incendiary) couple and the likes of Laura Carmichael, Tom Felton and Jack Davenport supporting them.
We begin in 1947. Post-war London is all a bustle and Ruth is protesting to her sister Muriel (Carmichael) that she, Ruth, cannot possibly go to the missionary dance — that’s Muriel’s scene and set. But go she goes, and there she meets Seretse. She sees him from across the room and finds herself looking at him all night, until her well placed opening quip, “I do love jazz, but I’ve never trusted an Englishman to play it,” brings them into conversation at last. It’s some kind of meet cute, and it gets a lot cuter when Seretse sends Ruth a jazz record by way of inviting her to a different dance. Cut to scenes of a magical evening with dancing and laughter and moonlit strolls along rain-soaked and desperately romantic London street. It’s beginning to look a lot like love, and soon enough it is — and then the rest of the world threatens to interfere. A relationship is objectionable enough, but a marriage, they’re told by everyone from Ruth’s father, Seretse’s uncle and the British government is impossible.
At first it seems like simple racism, but as the duo press on, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s more motivating the systemic opposition than meets the eye. It starts with the rise of apartheid in South Africa and other nearby countries, but there’s even more to the story. These added layers are surprising, but welcome details in a story that tempts the frequent cinemagoer to presume absolute knowledge of the closing frames as soon as the opening credits begin to roll.
A United Kingdom delivers a rich historical tale and a lot of acting pedigree, unsurprisingly, this leads to several truly standout moments, but there are also a few curiously weak moments — the most obvious of which revolve around the leads carrying out dramatic physical gestures. Their palpable chemistry and accomplished emotive work don’t shine through in those moments, but they do overshadow them by a great deal. And an instant that finds the women of Bechuanaland serenading Ruth is a moment of such earned happy crying that you’ll be hard pressed not to join in.
A United Kingdom turns out to be a treat both for the fan of period romance dramas AND politically-flavored historical pictures. Come for the pedigree, stay for the pedigree — and the story.