A United Kingdom
Directed by Amma Asante. Starring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Laura Carmichael, Tom Felton. (2017, PG-13, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., March 3, 2017
A sense of respectability stifles A United Kingdom, the biographical romantic drama about the then-shocking marriage between English-educated tribal prince Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) and London office clerk Ruth Williams (Pike) in 1948, an interracial union the British government viewed as a threat to political stability in Khama’s homeland, the protectorate Bechuanaland (now Botswana) located just north of the apartheid and mineral-rich nation of South Africa. From Sam McCurdy’s warm fifty-shades-of-brown cinematography to Amma Asante’s meticulous direction, the film feels too poised to arouse potent emotion. Honestly, you could put a frame around it. As a history lesson for an unversed audience, A United Kingdom provides an educational glimpse into a dying empire’s waning postwar influence over a continent coming of age, an authority grounded in an institutionalized racism dismantling as the 20th century moved forward. (The movie trades in stock characters to depict this historical context, from the officious English bureaucrats who sniff at the Khamas’ audacity to the noble African tribesmen in the dusty crowd scenes on the Botswanan savannah.) But as a dramatic love story not dissimilar to the one played out by King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson a decade or so earlier, the film provides only a whiff of great romance, just a hint of for-the-woman-I-love ardor. It honors this extraordinary couple’s defiant and unwavering love for each other, but it doesn’t celebrate it much beyond a cliched falling-in-love montage and a chaste wedding-night scene. You can look, but you better not touch.
The two attractive lead actors are not to blame, given what they have to work with. Pike is lovely, subtly conveying Ruth’s inner strength without getting all weepy on us. You wish, however, the character had a little more to do than stand by her man, though she steps up a bit when her husband is tricked into forced exile. Similar to his performance as Martin Luther King in Selma, Oyelowo shines the brightest in his oratory scenes, such as one in which Khama returns home with his new bride and must convince his constituency to approve his succession to the throne in the name of justice and equality. Given Oyelowo’s formidable gift for elocution, there’s no question whether the prince’s people will embrace him. It’s a roaring speech, one fit for a king. It’s the kind of oomph A United Kingdom sorely needs.