A United Kingdom David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport. Directed by Amma Asante. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at Regal Downtown Summerlin.
The true story behind Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is fascinating, but her dramatization of it is only slightly more stirring than a Wikipedia entry. The movie chronicles the marriage of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of the dominant tribe in the country that eventually became Botswana, and Ruth Williams, a middle-class clerk in London, where Seretse came to study law in the late 1940s. Seretse’s choice to marry Ruth, a white woman, was an important factor in a long political battle between his people and the British government, which held Botswana (then known as Bechuanaland) as a protectorate until its independence in 1966.
The movie rushes through the couple’s initial courtship in a few quick montages, and while Oyelowo and Pike have believable chemistry, the strength of their love, in defiance of multiple governments, is taken for granted rather than effectively illustrated. Planning to return home to rule his people, Seretse faces opposition from his uncle (who had been acting as regent since Seretse was a child) and from the British government, eager not to upset important ally South Africa. The couple’s pragmatic but stubborn determination to stay together and stay in Bechuanaland endures exile, separation and intimidation, and Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert throw in plenty of crowd-pleasing moments of rebellion at key intervals.
The movie is a respectable depiction of a piece of history that many in the audience (especially in the U.S.) will not be aware of, and its intentions are admirable. But as drama, it’s safe and rote, hitting every expected beat, often with cheesy directness (look for lots of flying newspaper headlines). In 2013, Asante made Belle, another period drama about a controversial interracial romance, and its balance between historical detail and fictionalized narrative gave her the chance to build fuller characters and a richer love story. A United Kingdom gets the facts right, but doesn’t go much beyond that.