When Botswana, formerly called Bechuanaland, separated from the British Empire, it wasn’t just a victory for the Botswanans but also a triumph for the historic couple at the heart of the nation’s newfound independence. Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” places this couple, composed of Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike), at the heart of her film to great effect. But if Seretse and Ruth are our Romeo and Juliet, the film fizzles by over-emphasizing the political finagling of the Montagues and Capulets rather than sticking to the lovers themselves.
When Ruth Williams goes dancing with her sister, she falls head over heels for Seretse Khama, who, unknown to her, is the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland. All she knows is that he’s a brilliant student at Oxford and a fierce boxer to boot. Pretty soon, the two are sending each other records and frequenting various jazz clubs, and in the greatest cinematic twist in recent memory, Ryan Gosling is not present at any of them. Ruth and Seretse’s budding romance is as adorable as any put to film, and Pike has undeniable chemistry with Oyelowo.
Like in any relationship, the small and mundane moments matter most, and Oyelowo and Pike nail scenes featuring such moments. When the couple first arrives in Bechuanaland and Seretse is alone with Ruth, he simply holds her in a tight embrace without saying too much — with such moments, one truly believes their love is unconditional. As a result, when Seretse makes grand speeches in front of his people to defend his marriage, the emotional stakes are palpable. It’s also worth noting that Oyelowo has mastered cinematic rhetoric (this is no surprise, given his role in “Selma”), and he delivers truly moving speeches in the film. Pike plays Ruth with equal verve, and her defense of Seretse in stodgy British government offices feels as impassioned as any speech he makes.
Ruth and Seretse’s romance is the beating heart of the film, and it becomes frustrating when the film doesn’t utilize it to full effect. There’s a point where the focus shifts toward the political consequences of Ruth and Seretse’s marriage. These scenes are largely ineffectual because the political stakes are not nearly as high as the emotional stakes. We don’t really care that the British need to please the South African government in order to have access to its uranium; we just want Ruth and Seretse to stay together. When the conflict of the film places an emphasis on national politics, the audience’s investment diminishes, and the film begins to drag. Though the political fallout of Ruth and Seretse’s marriage is laid out comprehensibly, it simply doesn’t have the same narrative pull of a star-crossed romance.
Though “A United Kingdom” isn’t so spirited with the story’s politics, there are scenes that are commendable, intended or not, for their eerie timeliness. Peripherally, the film’s interracial romance is an obvious clarion call for equality in every respect. Yet, other scenes offer sharper political commentary. In one scene, a British government lackey (played by Tom Felton, whose iconic sneer deserves knighthood) becomes the authority of Bechuanaland. During his swearing-in ceremony, there isn’t a Botswanan in sight — not even a tumbleweed shows up to tumble aimlessly in a gratuitous demonstration of profound desertion. One official says that they were expecting a crowd of thousands.
Additionally, a subplot features Seretse working with a journalist, despite their differences, because a key piece of reporting could substantially boost Bechuanaland’s prospects for independence. The film is based on a true story, but a leader’s constructive cooperation with the press has become quite fictitious in real life. Even though this subplot may not have been intended to offer political commentary, it enriches a viewing of the film through its unmistakable pertinence.
The film’s political commentary aside, “A United Kingdom” is enjoyable despite its flaws, which are concealed by the romance that plays out onscreen. This is a love story that will surely flood the cockles of the heart with an embracing and life-affirming warmth — a warmth that is too often in short supply once we leave the theater.
“A United Kingdom” is currently playing at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema.