“A United Kingdom” tells the true story of the courtship and marriage of an African king and a white British woman in the years following World War II. Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland – later Botswana – was a student in London when he met Ruth Williams. Their subsequent union had reverberations not only in their country, but in Great Britain and South Africa.
Directed by Amma Asante, who made the superb film “Belle” (2013), “A United Kingdom” is a dutiful and earnestly made account of this slice of history. Certain details are glossed over out of convenience and others are emphasized and, to a degree, even fictionalized for the sake of drama, but for the most part the story is rendered faithfully, and it’s an interesting story. In the decades that followed, these people would become enduring political figures. Their eldest son, Ian Khama, is the current president of Botswana.
Yet, there is something unmistakably limp about “A United Kingdom.” It would be too strong to say that it’s dead on screen, but it never exactly comes to life, either. The problem seems to lie in the portrayal of the principal characters. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is presented as a borderline saint, a man who could honestly say on a job interview that his worst trait is that he works too hard.
Rosamund Pike fares worse as Ruth Williams Khama. This actress, who has never been less than charming and has often been turbulent and interesting in her portrayals, seems lost here, all but abandoned by the director and given little to play with by the screenwriter. For most of the film, Pike wears an expression of benign confusion, always smiling, but looking vaguely imbecilic. Perhaps this is how we’d all look, living in a foreign country and not knowing the language, but it doesn't serve the larger aims of the movie.
“A United Kingdom” is stuck between two possible intentions and can’t achieve either. It’s a love story that doesn’t do the first thing that a love story must do: It fails to make us fall in love with Seretse and Ruth as a couple. We appreciate them. We wish them well. We even root for them to be happy, but neither of them is human nor vivid enough to command our affection.
At the same time, “A United Kingdom” is not quite an incisive or dramatic account of mid-century Southern African politics. Politics is, of course, alluded to, but always in the context of how this turn of events or that enforced separation will impact the young couple and, later, their young family. Otherwise, politics remains a distant subject, one that becomes compelling only when Jack Davenport appears as a snide, cold blooded mid-level British diplomat, Sir Alistair.
Sir Alistair is such a pleasure to watch that it should come as no surprise that he is fictional. Some of the best people are.
Still, for all the movie’s flaws and missed opportunities, “A United Kingdom” features committed performances and illuminates events that are, in themselves, worthy of note. It’s not a bad film, just, strangely, not a good one.
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