Forming an unofficial trilogy with Belle and Loving, Amma Asante's A United Kingdom is another glorious, poignant biopic on interracial love that challenges then changes the world. It was Asante who surprised all of us three years ago with Belle, a period romance that overcame its potential stuffiness with a story that felt modern and relevant. She faces a similar challenge here with the complicated politics that bound inspiring real-life couple Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), and she succeeds in giving them a sweeping, beautiful film worthy of their incredible story.
The story of Seretse and Ruth is one, a lot like Hidden Figures, that I was amazed to not have heard anything about. So I was left slack-jawed as their hardships unfolded on the big screen. Admittedly, it begins a little slowly as we meet Seretse, a Bechuanaland (later Botswana) prince in London studying law at Oxford. He's a refined fellow, who likes to spend his evening in jazz clubs. It's there that he meets Ruth, a typist with no intention of falling in love any time soon. Neither is he, for that matter. They dance, they talk, they flirt, they begin spending more time together, enduring the slurs that come with it. Post-war London has yet to look favorably on interracial relationship. If only Seretse and Ruth's problems amounted to a handful of bigoted douchebags on the street.
The decision to marry isn't an easy one. Her father disapproves immediately and practically disowns her. It's more difficult for Seretse. He's a prince, and to marry Ruth would mean bringing her back home to Bechuanaland where he can take over as Regent from his uncle (Vusi Kunene), who is adamantly against the idea of a white, British woman from a lower economic class. Worse are the machinations of the British government, which has been in control of Bechuanaland and has a partnership worked out with South Africa, who are beginning to institute the racist policies of apartheid. Britain can't be seen to be favoring Seretse's marriage to a British woman or it threatens access to South Africa's vast mineral resources.
There's a ton of plot for Asante and writer Guy Hibbert to wade through, so they smartly frontload everything we need to see of Seretse and Ruth's courtship. It makes for a crowded opening act that isn't helped by cinematography limited by London's busy, stifling streets. We see the first initial defenses of their union, as preparation for the big battles to follow. What we learn about them is that they always stand strong and put on a brave public face. In private they lean on one another for support. It's a practice they will get used to as evil mustache-twirling British representatives (played by Jack Davenport and Draco Malfoy...er, Tom Felton) and Seretse's uncle try to force his hand. Even the people are against him at first, seen in a tribal meeting where the men make decisions and the women hang around on the outskirts, scornfully judging Ruth.
Of course, we know things will eventually turn around, but getting there is the roller coaster. Threats, exiles, betrayals, and more stand in their way, but the biggest obstacle is popular opinion in Botswana. Even through all of his fights with the British, Seretse's deep love of country and for his wife remains paramount, and that is what helps turn the tide. He remains a true son of Botswana, and a loyal husband even when pushed to the breaking point. It should go without saying that Oyelowo and Pike are tremendous, whether separate or together. Pike may have the more difficult role, capturing the fear Ruth must have felt coming into an unknown place and being met with such fierce resistance. But she also shows Ruth's strength and determination, which only seems to grow when she's in Seretse's presence. He too, is a better man, a more vocal leader when she is around. They complement one another in every way that matters. The two look immaculate against the wide open, sprawling vistas of Botswana, gorgeously captured by DP Sam McCurdy.
There's no complete escape from the deluge of story points and factoids that bog things down, but we remain invested in seeing this unbelievable partnership endure. Perhaps it's because things are so divided now racially that A United Kingdom shines like a beacon for how we ought to be.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5