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For Love and Country in 'A United Kingdom'

Mar. 7, 2017
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The sacrifice of a king who gave up his throne for the woman he loved is familiar from the story of Britain’s King Edward VIII. In the case of Seretse Khama, the heir to a tribal monarchy within Bechuanaland (now Botswana) wanted the throne and the woman, and fought hard for what he thought were his rights.

A United Kingdom

Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike
Directed by: Amma Asante
Rated: PG-13

The true story is dramatized by A United Kingdom, a movie that manages to acknowledge the difficulties faced by Seretse (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), but with all the simplifications necessitated by boiling decades down to two hours. The barrier Seretse faced in 1948 was racial: He was a black African prince studying law in London and Ruth was a white English typist at Lloyd’s. In the movie, their emotional connection is never explained beyond a passing reference to Ruth’s love of adventure. Their eyes meet. It’s love.

Their first encounter occurs at a relatively prim missionary society function where interracial dancing is encouraged and they pursue each other through the wilder jitterbugging of London’s jazz halls. But marriage? The screenplay shows little hesitation from Seretse or Ruth, despite the bitter anathemas hurled by Ruth’s father and the more sober rejection by Seretse’s family patriarch, his uncle (Vusi Kenene).

The biggest problem they faced, however, came from the British government. In the 19th century Bechuanaland became a British protectorate rather than fall prey to white-ruled South Africa. But the idea of an interracial king and queen of a neighboring state was abhorrent to South Africa’s ruling party, busily institutionalizing apartheid just as Seretse and Ruth fell in love. Unwilling to risk the ire of South Africa, still an economically important component of the British Commonwealth, London put its boot down by banishing Seretse from his homeland.

Directed by Amma Asante, a British filmmaker of West African heritage, A United Kingdom casts the story in the mold of Hollywood romance, complete with a string section chiming in at every heartfelt moment. The socio-political notes are capably sounded. Oyelowo, who starred as Martin Luther King in Selma, endows Seretse with fervent passion—not only for Ruth but also for a vision of independent Bechuanaland and a multiracial future for Africa. His British opponents are depicted as twits who stepped from the periphery of a P.G. Wodehouse story. A United Kingdom is designed to present a forgotten and interesting bit of history as entertainment, balancing wide appeal with veracity to the core elements of truth.

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