Film Review: ‘A United Kingdom’

a united kingdom tiff
Courtesy of TIFF

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike play the mixed-race power couple whose love challenged apartheid in this overly simplistic historical romance.

Sometimes it is just a matter of black and white. In real life, the story of the mixed-race marriage between Seretse Khama, prince of Bechuanaland (later to become first president of Botswana), and London office worker Ruth Williams was full of complication and nuance, though you wouldn’t know it from Amma Asante’s oversimplified “A United Kingdom,” which treats their love story like a Disney princess movie, reducing the drama to a series of polite disagreements between the couple and the cardboard officiates who opposed their union. Granted, it’s an important historical lesson — coincidentally arriving at nearly the same time as America-set “Loving” — but it’s hard enough to interest audiences in terrific African stories; a mediocre one hardly stands a chance.

To properly put a romance in jeopardy, one must first convince us that it exists, and while we witness the first meeting between Seretse (David Oyelowo) and Ruth (Rosamund Pike) — whose eyes meet across the room at a London Mission Society mixer, designed to convert the savages to Christianity — there’s little to suggest that what they share is special. We can safely assume that Seretse is nothing like the men who’ve courted Ruth in the past. When she first sees Oyelowo’s character, the charismatic “Selma” star straddles a leather club chair like some kind of overconfident cowboy, emphatically debating politics with his peers. Ruth, on the other hand, is pleasant enough to look at, a porcelain beauty whose arched eyebrows seem permanently etched in an expression of waxy surprise, but she doesn’t offer much in the personality department.

At the end of “A United Kingdom,” a series of intertitles explain everything that Ruth accomplished while in Botswana. During the course of the film, however, her only real achievement is being strong enough to pursue a relationship that nearly everyone deemed unpopular. After a few bland dates, Seretse takes the opportunity to propose marriage (picturesquely staged with Big Ben in the background), which invites the sort of predictable scene in which Ruth’s conservative father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) threatens to disown her. Same goes for Seretse’s traditional uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who has been acting as regent while his nephew was away. Such confrontations are to be expected, though one doesn’t expect what happens next, as British diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) pops by Ruth’s office to explain why the system won’t allow her to marry. His explanation boils down to a word she’s never heard before: “apartheid.”

Just adjacent to Bechuanaland, South Africa has instituted a system of racial segregation, and Seretse and Ruth’s progressive marriage threatens to undermine the paradigm being used to keep the white minority in control. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert explains this situation in the same overly simplistic way he sketches everything, as if his audience isn’t capable of understanding anything more complicated than a picture book written for 3-year-olds. As such, it helps to have a character like Canning, who is manipulating the mixed-marriage situation for his own political advancement. (By the way, that’s Oyelowo’s real-life wife, Jessica, playing Canning’s sourpuss white spouse.)

The issue of marriage equality has progressed so far in 70 years that it will be hard to find many moviegoers who would even recognize the scandal in Seretse and Ruth’s relationship (though it would be fun to test the theory with a film about an African prince who strikes up a same-sex love affair abroad). When a group of drunken Brits slur, “Keep your black hands off what’s ours,” we may as well be watching cavemen who drag their wives by the hair. Still, there’s a danger in oversimplifying the opposition to Seretse, since doing so masks a far uglier history, one that still plays out in various sinister forms around the globe today: the far reach of Western colonialism. In the late 1940s, when Seretse returned to Africa with his bride, Bechuanaland was still a British protectorate, and though tribal leaders were nominally allowed to rule, the real decisions about how to handle the resource-rich region were being made by power-brokers back in England.

The film only kinda-sorta hints at the idea that Seretse’s marriage may have been the least threatening thing about him. Remember, he had been sent off to England for nearly 20 years to study, and when he returned, he was savvy enough to recognize how his people were being manipulated — to renounce his royalty in favor of advocating a new democratic system that would finally give them control over their own country. “A United Kingdom” treats all of this as a color issue, when in fact, Seretse’s scandalous exile from his own country had more to do with the British occupiers being unwilling to relax their clutches on this strategic African region.

Even that begs explaining, and though “A United Kingdom” mentions diamond mining (a form of exploitation so corrupt it all but destroyed the Congo), as well as the importance of placating South Africa, it mostly gives the impression that scenery and sunsets were Bechuanaland’s most important resources, and that both were best appreciated by lovers — as accentuated in postcard-worthy panoramas rendered heavenly by Patrick Doyle’s overripe orchestral score. After serving up a montage or two like that, to separate Seretse and Ruth is not only a crime against romance, but a real drama-killer, leading to a long series of boring scenes in which the couple try to get by as outsiders in their respective countries: Ruth stranded in her backwards new home as her black neighbors build their mud huts, while a business-suit-clad Seretse lingers on London’s margins. These two are meant to be together, as the film’s clever title suggests, though all the truly interesting things they accomplished happen only after that reunion.

Film Review: 'A United Kingdom'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 9, 2016. Running time: 111 MINS.

Production

(U.S.-U.K.-Czech Republic) A Pathé, BBC Films, Ingenious Media, Harbinger Pictures presentation, with Canal Plus, Cine Plus, of a Yoruba Saxon Prods., Harbinger Pictures, Film United, Perfect Weekend production. (International sales: Pathé, Paris.) Producers: Brunson Green, Peter Heslop, Charlie Mason, Rick McCallum, Justin Moore-Lewy, David Oyelowo. Executive producers: Guy Hibbert, Cameron McCracken.

Crew

Director: Amma Asante. Screenplay: Guy Hibbert, based on the book “Colour Bar” by Susan Williams. Camera (color, widescreen): Sam McCurdy. Editor: Jonathan Amos.

With

David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Arnold Oceng, Anton Lesser, Anastasia Hille, Jack Lowden, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Vusi Kunene, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Charlotte Hope, Donald Molosi. (English dialogue)

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  1. Olayinka Babalola says:

    You are very ill informed, and also quite salty I might add. You write like someone who has never done any research about Botswana past the first pages of a goggle search. In the review you stated that diamond mining all but destroyed the Congo, well Botswana is not the Congo. because they were able to secure that wealth for their people it is used to educate their high school students and did you know that anyone who gets 5 A* in their GCSE in Botswana (citizens of course) gets a fully paid scholar ship from the government to study in any country and I mean ANY country in the world including housing and monthly allowance. That is what diamonds, the wealth of that country, has been able to do for them. Botswana used to be the third poorest country in Africa not so long ago. Let that sink in for a minute.

    And what does this even mean?
    “The issue of marriage equality has progressed so far in 70 years that it will be hard to find many moviegoers who would even recognize the scandal in Seretse and Ruth’s relationship”

    Is this comment a joke? the racial scandal is still very clear and very prominent. How long did it take to bring a black man into the white house? Too damn long. And why was that? Racial prejudice. People of other races don’t normally rise to high places in politics, especially in country not as racially diverse as America. So yes, best believe that the “scandal” of bringing a white lady to rule a black kingdom isn’t lost on us.

  2. There is nothing wrong with making this film primarily a racial one. Like it or not, the mating process, especially with heirs in mind, IS ethno-racial, especially with royal lineage on the line. Only a naif could deny that. I’ve seen the trailer for this film, by the way — good for the black prince’s tribal elders for trying to talk some sense into him.

  3. Larry Bieber says:

    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana from 1968 – 1970. The review has several inaccuracies in the review and one prejudicial and condescending comment.

    When Botswana became independent in 1966 it faced massive challenges. It was recovering from devastating drought and required massive amounts of British aid. At independence, Botswana was the third poorest country of the world. There were only 22 Batswana (citizens of Botswana) college graduates and approximately 100 secondary school graduates.

    Sir Seretse Khama was a combination of George Washington and Martin Luther King in Botswana’s history. The love story of Sir Seterse and Lady Khama is an amazing love story that overcomes racial prejudice and national and international politics. Sir Seretse helped create the foundation for Botswana’s government and negotiate Botswana’s independence from Britain. Under Sir Seretse’s leadership Botswana became a stable democracy with one person/one vote and a nonracial society. Last year they celebrated their 50th anniversary of independence. Further, the economic foundations that he helped establish resulted in Botswana’s economy growing to one of the highest in Africa from the third lowest in 1966.

    First, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland become British protectorates in March 1885 because their chiefs went to Britain and asked for protection from the South African Boers and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the north. It was not colonized as you inferred.

    Second, Christianity was widespread in Botswana. Sir Seretse was a Christian before he went to London. The mixer provided an opportunity for British citizens to meet with foreigners and was not to “convert savages to Christianity.” Further, the Batswanas becoming Christian show that Christianity is applicable for all cultures including the ‘savages’ in LA.

    The term savages is extremely prejudicial. By any standard, Botswana was and is highly civilized. Do not confuse development with civilization. The Number One Ladies Detective series is very entertaining and is an accurate portrayal of Botswana life and culture.

    Third, Botswana diamond mining is not a form of corruption as it is in other parts of Africa. Sir Seretse negotiated a 50 -50 joint partnership with De Beers. The profits raised Botswana’s standard of living and provided revenue funds for the government.

    Finally, one more point about Botswana needs to be made. A rondaval or mud (actually adobe) hut is actually very comfortable. The thatched roof keeps the hut cool. It is sturdy, easy to clean, and cheap to build.

    The romance of Sir Seretse and Lady Khama is a romance of the ages. They faced many political challenges from South Africa and Britain, and family opposition. Additionally, Botswana faced many economic and political challenges in becoming independent. A happy ending for both stories.

  4. david gaolefufa says:

    Price Seretse Khama was actually not the Price of Bechuanaland, he was the Price of a tribe called Bangwato in Bechuanaland. The country has several other Tribes with their own chiefs. Botswana is not and has never been a monarchy.

  5. Nicole says:

    This review claims that the film obscures the far reach of Western colonialism when actually it makes it abundantly clear. For all of the emphasis on the Khamas’ marriage, there is plenty of detail paid to the political backdrop. Asante shows, for example, Attlee getting in bed with the South African government for the sake of Britian’s postwar coffers. And I’ve never seen a Disney princess movie where the princess falls down in a dusty street while her white compatriots walk past, or where the prince gets called the n word.

  6. penni says:

    There may not be much (American?) interest in African stories per se, but the word ‘Botswana’ will electrify the over 40 million English readers plus another umpty million in 48 translations who follow Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series. Even a mediocre story will fill in some welcome personal and political background for the near-worshipped Seretse Khama invariably mentioned as the nation’s savior — even if the color is all in the local sunsets (supposedly spectacular). I’m pretty snobbish about film quality myself, but I’ll buy a ticket.

  7. You wrote a ton of paragraphs to show your dislike, when, in fact you could have used two words, hated it. And this line….(By the way, that’s Oyelowo’s white wife, Jessica, playing Canning’s sourpuss spouse.). Classy.

    • Tender Puppy! says:

      Seems as if a majority of the critics reviewing TIFF films are in a sour mood. I enjoy snark as much as anyone else, but some of the misplaced vitriol seems to be clouding their judgment. This is the same excuse for a critic who dismissed “Lion” with numerous social media puns. This review seems a little more credible at least, though this guy certainly differs from popular opinion.

      (Then again, who says that’s a bad thing? Gran Torino was considered brilliant by some; meanwhile, I found the pathetic screenplay to be film school garbage; the acting of anyone aside from Eastwood, in one of his best performances, to be atrocious; and the film in general to be pompous nonsense.

      Popular opinion was that Boyhood was a resplendent triumph. I found it to be a 3-hour gimmick masquerading as a film worthy of such acclaim, complete with every cliché Linklater could formulate and Arquette’s character being thrown into any situation that would curry Oscar favor. Still glad to this day it was bested by the impeccable Birdman.)

      So, it’s easy for us to sit here and criticize Debruge. But for all we know, he may be right. Underneath all the snide jabs, perhaps his dismissal of these films has some foundation? We will know ourselves soon enough! Shame though, since I figured Oyelowo had a decent shot at a Best Actor nod, and likewise for Pike in Best Actress. Oyelowo still has a legitimate shot with Queen of Katwe, in any event.

  8. Argos Wolf says:

    Looks like another politically correct movie that will bomb at the box office.

    • Nicole says:

      Hi Argos, it’s not. You see racism on both sides. You see both liberal and conservative governments behaving in appalling ways. I don’t think the reviewer was paying very close attention, tbh.

    • Marianne Lord says:

      This is a pretty accurate review, it was staggering how you could take such an interesting story and turn it into a dull one.

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