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.