It tells us much about the way British history has been taught in our schools that the relationship between London clerk Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, heir to the kingdom of what was then Bechuanaland, has been largely forgotten. Yet how significant their mixed-race courtship and marriage in the late 1940s turned out to be. The widespread opposition to their marriage amounted to a diplomatic crisis; it was vehemently opposed by the British government, by South Africa (just about to embark on its infamous apartheid era), and by other African nations still under white colonial rule.
No-one, except the couple themselves, emerge with much credit from all this, yet despite fierce opposition, they prevailed, and later became significant players in the newly independent state of Botswana.
This is a terrific story, and the film A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante (Belle) and written by Guy Hibbert, astutely presents it as a melodramatic romance, while retaining enough of the complex political background to keep it plausible.
Still, the film is largely carried by the fine performances of the two leads. David Oyelowo is utterly convincing as Seretse, a charming, intellectually gifted young man with a will of iron; nothing will separate him from the woman he loves. And Rosamund Pike grows in stature as Ruth as the story progresses; much is made of her ordinary upbringing in south London, but her essential goodness and force of character allow her both to weather the political storms and stand by her man. This is arguably the best screen work to date from this talented actress.
The film’s early scenes are largely delightful. Seretse is one of a generation of bright, high-born young African men studying law in London – which will equip them to return to their countries and negotiate effectively with the British government on equal terms. He meets Ruth, they both like jazz and dancing, and the seeds of romance are sown.
He swiftly proposes marriage and her father is horrified; but then so is his uncle, acting as regent to the tribal kingdom he will inherit. Asante treats the couple’s setbacks even-handedly. We see Seretse exposed to racist insults when he’s out in London with Ruth; but on arriving in Bechuanaland, she is greeted by silent hostility from local women who cannot initially countenance the ideas of a white queen.
Yet the real villains of the piece as this story depicts them are British diplomats, conniving and thwarting the couple’s plans dismissively. Jack Davenport, as Sir Alistair Canning, plays his character’s nastiness to the hilt.
Visually the story is split into two halves; post-war London is gloomy, foggy and looking deprived. In Bechuanaland, of course, the deprivation is of a different order, but the bright light, red-earthed terrain and sweeping vistas - not to mention ravishing sunsets - make it feel more welcoming and alive.
This is a decent, accomplished film that may fall short of greatness but is a landmark in its own way. When I talked to David Oyelowo recently he told me that growing up black and British, “I never saw myself represented in British film-making. And nothing of my history, as it pertains to Britain, was ever taught me in school.”
A United Kingdom, then, starts to redress that balance. It has much to commend it on several fronts, down to its subtly insolent title: it isn’t Great Britain to which it refers.
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