A United Kingdom centers on such a compelling story that on first glace, it’s surprising that no one has dramatized it before now. But once you know just a bit more about the movie – it’s about a prince from Africa who falls in love with a white Englishwoman in the 1940s and then takes her back to his country when it’s time for him to fulfill his obligation as king, despite the forceful objection of their families and the British government – you realize that the project is a minefield. The racial aspects alone could have been a disaster if handled poorly. The romance had to be believable, especially with stakes this high. Movies about politics can be incredibly dry. Besides, Henry V, The Young Victoria, and The King’s Speech all demonstrate that we really prefer our historical English film characters charming and heroic; we’re much more comfortable making villains of the French.
Yet despite all the myriad ways A United Kingdom could have gone off the rails, director Amma Asante (Belle, A Way of Life) successfully navigates the tightrope, and the end result is a moving, engaging film that is balanced in ways that make it feel authentic. Despite being a story about a king, it’s surprisingly lacking in décor or ceremony. It’s a romance, but there are moments of profound, palpable loneliness. The story unfolds on two continents and ripples through international news, but it always feel personal enough that it could be happening nearby and be about people you know.
Asante deserves much of the credit for the quality of the film, but that it connects so successfully on a personal level is due to the talent of David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, who play the central couple, Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. Oyelowo brings the right amount of emotion to his role as a man trying to balance duty to his country, family, wife, and himself. Oyelowo is a master at portraying the conflicting emotions, which is perfect for Seretse, who is unfailingly certain about what he wants, but is unsure of his ability to obtain it. In the scenes when Seretse is proposing to Ruth, and when he makes the case to his people that he should not have to choose between his wife and his responsibility as king, it’s impossible to look away from Oyelowo.
Pike is also excellent, though in a slightly different way. Where Oyelowo shines in the most emotionally wrought scenes, Pike brings humanity into the more mundane moments of the film, often by injecting a moment of levity or by quietly but firmly pressing on in the face of opposition. The chemistry between the two leads is strong too, which is pivotal: after only about 20 minutes of flirting and dancing, we have to believe they love and like each other enough to defy their families and their nations.
The supporting cast is important as well, given their role in building the conflict. Terry Pheto is the highlight as Seretse’s sister Naledi. She doesn’t have a lot to do, but when she has a few lines in a row, they pack a punch. Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are fine as the requisite evil British overlords, but my only real issue with Guy Hibbert’s script is that these characters are so one-dimensional that it’s a surprise there’s no mustache twirling.
But that’s a relatively minor issue. A United Kingdom is a compelling portrayal of a story in which love, race, loyalty, and politics intersect. Its many dimensions should make it appealing to a variety of audiences, and most of them will be satisfied. Especially if they’re not too keen on the British.