Directed by: Amma Asante
Screenplay by: Guy Hibbert
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike
Original Release Date: November 2016
Review by Miriam Atkinson
A United Kingdom recreates the incredible true story of the love and determination of Seretse Kharma (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike).
The film begins in 1948 when Seretse Kharma, the Prince and soon-to-be King of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), meets British secretary Ruth Williams. Over time the two fall in love and become engaged. There is only one problem – Williams is white and Kharma is black – and at the time such a union was not only considered shameful by most of society but an outrage.
A United Kingdom does not shy away from showing the violent racism towards Kharma in England and Bechuanaland’s displeasure at having a ‘white Queen’. It is an essential part of the story and I feel it forces the audience to acknowledge the attitudes that existed at the time and that unfortunately still exist in some parts of society today.
Despite this there are plenty of moments of life throughout the film. One of the most moving moments comes when Kharma addresses the kgotlas (a formal gathering of all the members of the tribe, young and old) and declares: ‘I love my people but I love my wife and I cannot rule without her’. Oyelowo’s performance in this scene is completely believable and so captivating to watch. Following this impassioned speech it was then heart warming to watch the journey as Williams was slowly accepted by the people. Rosamund Pike does amazing work, showing both Williams vulnerability and isolation but later her strength and authority.
All stories, even moments of history, have an antagonist and in A United Kingdom I am ashamed to say that the villain in this story is/was Great Britian. Bechuanaland was under the protection of Great Britain but the British Government only really cared about protecting its relationship with the much more powerful and wealthy South Africa. During this time South Africa had implemented apartheid and therefore disapproved of Kharma and Williams’ marriage. Members of the British Government therefore set out to divide the pair and remove them from Bechuanaland. Thankfully they did not succeed.
It is only appropriate that A United Kingdom was filmed in both England and Botswana, showing the clear contrast between the two difference worlds. The scenes in England are all of urban streets and cityscapes, trapping the characters in man-made spaces, but in Botswana the majority of scenes are set outside in the natural landscape. While in Botswana I noticed that even when the action takes the characters indoors there was always a wide window behind them to show the openness of the country and the freedom the characters experience here.
One thing that stuck me in the cinema when the film ended was that people immediately discussed what they had just watched, myself included. A United Kingdom is one of those films that utterly captivates the audience, opens their eyes, and makes them want to talk about afterwards.
Everything and everyone comes together to make this film work and to shine a light on an extraordinary part of history.
*This review was originally published in the online magazine Cuckoo Review in December 2016*