Movie Review – A United Kingdom
The title is a reference to Great Britain and the British Empire, but the movie, ironically, is anti-British Empire. The British government in fact is the enemy here. For hundreds of years, Britain had many colonies, territories and protectorates all over the globe, but, after World War II, many of those countries wanted their independence from British control, particularly in Africa. Many African countries broke free or started to stand on their own. Botswana, which is a country that borders South Africa, gained its independence on September 30, 1966. This film, based on the book Colour Bar, tells the story of the interracial couple that was crucial or at the forefront of the movement that led to Botswana’s independence now 50 years ago.
David Oyelowo (Red Tails and Queen of Katwe) stars as Seretse Khama, a prince born in 1921 four years before his father died, which made him king as a child. Yet, his uncle was his guardian who groomed him for when he became ready to rule. In the 1940’s, he attended Oxford University where he studied to become a lawyer. He also trained in boxing. Actually, the movie starts with him in the boxing ring. After which, he runs into his future wife in a London club in 1947.
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl and Jack Reacher) co-stars as Ruth Williams, the daughter of a salesman who works in a typing pool. She goes to a party with her sister who sees and immediately becomes smitten with Seretse. What follows is a version of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which was about the American interracial couple in 1967 whose marriage legalized miscegenation in the United States.
Apparently, interracial marriage was legal in the UK decades before it was so in the US, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t frowned upon in the streets. Seretse and Ruth experience racism while walking together out in the open, but they’re still able to tie the knot. The racism doesn’t come to a head until Seretse and Ruth leave Britain and go to Botswana.
The film then becomes more like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. That movie is all about what leads a boxer to become the first black president in South Africa. This movie is all about what leads a boxer to become the first president of another South African country. The film about Mandela was more about apartheid where the blacks were being oppressed in that outright way. This movie does talk about apartheid, but it’s more a backdrop to the injustices of the British government and what could be considered reverse racism.
Terry Pheto (Tsotsi and Catch a Fire) plays Naledi Khama, the sister of Seretse who is the most vocal of the women to oppose Ruth being married to Seretse. Naledi did not want a white woman as her queen. It’s not as simple as reverse racism. It’s about heritage and legacy and tradition, but it doesn’t excuse her position. The film does take her on an arc to overcome her negative feelings toward Ruth.
The movie is essentially trying to tell three stories, but it’s perhaps juggling too much. From the love story to the apartheid to exploring the life of Botswana and its eventual independence, it’s all too much that feels compressed and not in a good way. The story-beats were happening and felt perfunctory. Oyelowo was giving an incredible performance as he always does, although he was much better in Selma and Nightingale.
The writer here is Guy Hibbert who wrote Complicit, another film starring Oyelowo. He also wrote the amazing Eye in the Sky, which has a strong and unpredictable, emotional resonance that this film lacks. Director Amma Asante had some of that in her previous feature Belle, but that material felt as if it were more personal to her than the material here.
Rated PG-13 for some language and a scene of sensuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.
Available on DVD / VOD.