A nearly-forgotten pan-cultural romance and its role in an African national success story earns a stately, feel-good treatment in “A United Kingdom,” an historical romance from the director of “Belle.”
It’s well cast, and shot on striking locations. But it’s a love story/historical drama that lurches along in fits and starts thanks to a “hit the high spots” script and somewhat flat direction.
Rosamund Pike is Ruth Williams, a clerical worker in hard-pressed post-war London. When her missionary sister (Laura Carmichael of “Downton Abbey”) lures her to a missionary society dance, she’s open-minded enough to go, and thinks nothing of dancing with the assorted handsome African men she meets there.
But one of them catches her eye. There’s something regal about Seretse Khama. He has a gallantry and gravitas about him. Some of that stems from the fact that he’s played by David Oyelowo, who made a noble Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma.” And some of it has been explained by a letter from Keretse’s uncle that opens the film.
“It is time to return home to Bechuana Land,” his regent uncle wrote. Time to take the throne and “ensure the advancement of our people.”
It’s the sort of thing he has to get out of the way after their first real date. He is to be king of his poor, desert-covered land-locked kingdom, lands under a British protectorate but coveted by the increasingly rebellious and racist South African regime to its south, hemmed in by racist Rhodesia to the east and Southwest Africa to the west.
And he cannot imagine going back there without a woman he’s fallen in love with.
The abruptness of this romance might be explained by the times. World War II left its survivors with an urgency that didn’t fade for years. That isn’t laid out in the script, nor is Ruth and Seretse’s ahead-of-their-times indifference to race.
Thirty minutes into the film, they’re married despite the fact that her father “will hate him on sight. He’s cleverer than him, and he’s black.” Thirty minutes in, they fly into apartheid South Africa and make the desert drive to Bechuana Land, where many disapprove of this union, including the ruling uncle (Vusi Kunene).
And thirty minutes in, the British government is all in a huff over this embarrassing marriage that is sure to rile up the wavering Empire commitments of South Africa. Jack Davenport (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies) plays another imperious, sherry-drinking ogre of the Empire, determined to break up the marriage or force this future king to abdicate.
The sneering Tom Felton of the Harry Potter pictures is “our man in Africa,” the commissioner in charge of keeping the peace –doing the Empire’s bidding — in a tribe seemingly riven by this union. Terry Pheto makes a vivid impression as the future king’s disapproving sister.
Director Amma Assante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert do a good job of re-introducing this piece of history — on a budget. But they lose themselves in the obstacles to romance and never give the players the chance to explore and explain the attraction. Yes, she’s Rosamund Pike. But he’s also very well educated, serious-minded. And Ruth is “a salesman’s daughter” with a clerical job and a little wartime ambulance-driving service.
What, aside from jazz and dancing, brought them together?
Each character shows some mettle in the later acts, when Churchillian chicanery threatens everything Seretse hopes for in his country, for his people and for his own happiness. But the script tips its hand and leans into “feel good” outcomes in a way that you don’t have to know Botswanan history to figure out where “United Kingdom” is going.
Still, it makes for a warm history lesson about a country and a love affair that prefigured a change in a corner of the world where the news, for decades, was dominated by violence, injustice and fear.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosemund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton
Credits:Directed by Amma Asante, script by Guy Hibbert. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:51