A United Kingdom (2016)

Director Amma Asante evokes a powerful interracial love story that threatened the British Empire.

The Power of Love

by Alexa Dalby

A United Kingdom

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The popularity of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books and TV series has created a cosy image of Botswana as a prosperous, stable democracy. But Amma Asante’s ironically titled A United Kingdom, based on Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar, tells the true story of how the then British protectorate of Bechuanaland became independent Botswana because of a very moving interracial love story that threatened to break up the British Empire and ended up with a new country being founded.

The film starts in 1947, when Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, recently seen in Queen of Katwe), a brilliant African law student in London, met Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, Oscar nominated for Gone Girl), a white English clerical worker from Eltham in south London, at a Missionary Society Dance and they fall in love. What he didn’t tell her until later was that he was a prince and the future king of Bechuanaland.

When he is recalled home to take up his responsibilities and lead his people, he and Ruth plan to marry and return together, despite hostility from both their families to the union. However, the British government intervenes. His country was a British protectorate and under British rule in a way that is hard for us to comprehend now. The problem for Britain is that South Africa is about to introduce apartheid. Its government sees an interracial relationship in its tiny neighbour as damaging and it threatens to withdraw the gold and uranium it supplies to poverty-stricken postwar Britain. As a result, out of self-interest the British government forbids the marriage and, when that fails to deter the couple, who are deeply in love, it sanctions Seretse and Ruth Khama in every way it can. But the British establishment has underestimated the strength that their love gives them.

Asante’s film is the story of the deep love between two people that enables them to overcome personal and political opposition. Seretse suffers racial prejudice in London and Ruth experiences it in Bechuanaland – her new royal relatives are hostile and say the country cannot accept a white queen. But she embraces her new life with an open mind and together she and Seretse overcome both racial prejudice and the duplicity of the last throes of British colonialism, which seeks to remove Seretse from leadership. It’s also about love for a country and a people. Seretse’s assertion that he cannot fulfil his role without the support of the woman he loves is reminiscent of the speech of Britain’s Edward VIII, though the two men and their handling of similar situations could not be more different.

Cruelly banished by Britain from his country for years, separated from Ruth and his newborn daughter who remained as hostages in Botswana, in the end he outwitted Britain by renouncing his royalty in order to institute a new democratic system which gave his people control over their country and eventually independence in 1966. He became its first prime minister and is revered to this day. In resisting the British government, he is helped by MPs Tony Benn (Jack Lowden) and Fenner Brockway.

David Oyelowo, because of whose persistence the project eventually got made, is outstanding as Khama – sensitive in his love for Ruth, majestic and inspirational in his visionary speeches to his people calling on the power of democracy in contrast to the oppression of British rule and in advocating for freedom and equality on the BBC, building on his portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma. Rosamund Pike is enchanting as Ruth – lively yet also brave, fearless and loyal in sacrificing everything for love and adapting to life in a strange new country. Once there she grows in strength and determination, even driving herself to the local hospital in a pick-up truck while about to give birth to publicly show her confidence in Botswana’s doctors. Together Seretse and Ruth have a shared love of life, dancing, jazz and a shared sense of humour and the ability to laugh at hardships – and a combined determination that changed the world.

The Spartan postwar period in London is beautifully created by Asante with foggy, dark exteriors where it seems to be always raining, and gloomy, dingy sitting rooms and chilly bedrooms. Ruth’s parents (Nicholas Lyndhurst and Anastasia Hille) are a typical lower-middle class family of the time but her sister Muriel (Laura Carmichael, Madame Bovary) is supportive of the lovers.

The representatives of the British government, though expressing attitudes typical of the time, now seem almost like pantomime villains. Jack Davenport (Americana) as Sir Alistair Canning, who has responsibility for Southern Africa, is the chief bully and enforcer. Jessia Oyelowo (David’s wife, Madame Bovary) is gratingly patronising as Canning’s wife Lady Lilly. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter) as Rufus Lancaster, the governor imposed on Bechuanaland, is horribly small minded and officious. Terry Pheto (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) is Seretse’s sister Naledi and his uncle, the regent, Tshekedi Khama is played by Vusi Kunene (The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency).

A United Kingdom opens out gloriously when it reaches its location in Botswana with wide shots of the sun-baked plains. You can feel the dust and the heat, see the contrast between round thatched houses and the people’s poverty and the colonial club houses where Seretse is the only black person allowed, given a dispensation as a king, even though he is black. The cinematographer is Sam McCurdy and the screenwriter is Guy Hibbert. Overall, Asante’s film successfully balances the personal and the political, as in Asante’s previous film Belle to create a very moving insight into an almost overlooked but crucial chapter that defined the recent history of two countries.

A United Kingdom premiered at the 60th BFI London Film Festival and is released on 25 November 2016 in the UK to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Botswana’s independence.

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