Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) leaves his native Bechuanaland (now Botswana) to study law in London, where he falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) in 1948. When the two marry, their governments attempt to end their interracial relationship because Khama is the prince of Bechuanaland. Complicated by their different races, cultures, and governments, Khama and Williams must fight for love, for freedom, and for the future in A United Kingdom.
Acted terrifically by Oyelowo and Pike, this story of star-crossed lovers plays out against the beautiful backdrop of Botswana (celebrating the fiftieth year of independence). Director Amma Asante orchestrates the movement of these two, as well as a series of antagonists in London and Bechuanaland. While the film has much to say about the politics of apartheid, it keeps the film flowing even when in the midst of scenes of long dialogue and exposition, with tension ramped up by the British government’s decision to banish Khama from his homeland.
In the main role of villain, Jack Davenport plays Alistair Canning, the British government official responsible for the Crown’s interests in Southern Africa. He, and his lieutenant (Tom Felton), provide plenty of racist, political fodder for consideration that the audience can palpably understand even if there are mineral rights deals and government reports that go sailing over its collective head. But the point of the film is not the racism, but the love.
While there are governmental issues at the core here, there is also a familial dynamic where Khama’s family doesn’t accept Williams because she’s white and she’s not from there. This is a reminder of the way in which binding together - where two become one - also requires the departure from one’s birth family to some degree. Thankfully, Williams is sufficiently wise to recognize how she can patiently wear down the sharp edges, specifically in the person of Khama’s sister (Terry Pheto). Here, the love that the movie highlights isn’t simply romantic or between two people, but allowed to grow in the way that the Khamas’ love impacts others.
Watching this beautiful, tragic, powerful story play out, the story’s importance to Oyelowo cannot be ignored. Oyelowo is himself married to a white English actress, Jessica, and the power with which he displays his passion for his onscreen wife and country bear the marks of someone who understands how important the story is. While Oyelowo once played an American statesman who spoke for freedom and democracy (as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma), he now shares a view of the English government, of Africa, and of growth in an equally fierce way.
Audiences will walk away from this love story challenged to fight for the ideals that we recognize in the formation of our own country. What does it take to establish freedom, democracy, free speech, and fair enterprise? What does it mean for love to blossom in a barren and thirsty land? A United Kingdom wants to show us the way forward, one relationship, one child, one step at a time.