'A United Kingdom' simplifies a complex political dynamic

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

The film, which depicts the mixed-race marriage between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the prince of Bechuanaland (and later the first democratically elected president of Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), makes its subjects glorified waxworks.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo star in 'A United Kingdom.'

“A United Kingdom” rigidifies a powerful subject. 

It’s about the real-life mixed-race marriage between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the prince of Bechuanaland (and later the first democratically elected president of Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the office worker he meets at a dance while studying law in London.

Their courtship prompts predictable ire from Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst), who rejects her when he learns they are engaged. It provokes a similar wrath from Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), who is like a father to him and has been acting as Bechuanaland’s regent until the young man is ready to assume power. He demands Seretse divorce his new wife or renounce the throne.

Bechuanaland in the late 1940s, at the time Seretse returned home with his bride, was a British protectorate replete with diamond mines. On its border was South Africa, the apartheid-dominated country that, for commercial and strategic reasons, Britain wished to appease. A neighboring mixed-race royal marriage would not sit well with either South Africa or the British colonialists, and so Seretse, in the crosshairs of the mocking British diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), is exiled while his wife remains behind. 

Although the political maneuvering involving the British Parliament and several prime ministers is dutifully featured by the director, Amma Asante (“Belle”), and her screenwriter, Guy Hibbert, the real emphasis is the abiding love between Seretse and Ruth. The problem with this approach is that it simplifies a complex political dynamic that was at least as much about colonial riches as it was about race. Seretse, after all, even if he had not been married to a white woman, was a fierce advocate of democratically elected self-rule in his country.  

If Asante had bolstered the romance between Seretse and Ruth with something sturdier than cardboard, the movie might have succeeded anyway. But it’s not altogether clear from this film what attracted them so mightily to each other. He’s fiery and headstrong; she’s plainspoken and headstrong. That’s about it. Asante’s decorous treatment of their romance turns both Oyelowo and Pike into glorified waxworks, especially Pike, who can too easily come across as an ice queen in her movies if she’s not coaxed by her directors into warmer waters. 

“A United Kingdom” raises the same question for me as did “Hidden Figures” and “Loving,” which were also based on true-to-life racial landmark sagas: How charitable should audiences be to a movie that tenderizes a tough subject? In all three instances, I was more interested in the real people whose photos we see in the end credits than in the on-screen portrayals. This may just be the History Channel in me acting up, but I still prefer the actuality of experience to all this ginned-up crowd-pleasing dramaturgy. At least “Hidden Figures” was savvy enough to please its crowds. “A United Kingdom,” with its saintly good folk and sneering bad folk emptily exhorting, is closer to a dry historical tutorial. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for some language, including racial epithets, and a scene of sensuality.)

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