A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante (known for the 2013 film Belle), is based on true events about the love story between Bechuanaland’s former Chief, “Seretse Khama”(David Oyelowo), and his white, English wife, “Ruth Williams” (Rosamund Pike). Their love does not come without a fight as they must both battle against the racism and politics of their time, one that would like nothing more than to keep them apart. (EBT: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Contributor Elyse. Thaler
The first act of the film focuses on how “Seretse” (David Oyelowo) and “Ruth” (Rosamund Pike) meet and fall in love. Seretse is in London studying to be a lawyer so that when he returns to his native Bechuanaland (what is now Botswana), he will be returning with knowledge and education that will help his people. It is the late 1940s, so though as an African man Seretse is able to study law in London, there is still racial friction between blacks and whites.However, the friction is not enough to keep Ruth away from this handsome man who shares a love for jazz and dancing.
But before they can truly fall for one another Seretse must reveal who he really is, which is none other than the heir to the chiefdom of his home, Bechuanaland. Not only that, but he has been summoned home to take over for his uncle, “Tshekedi Khama” (Vusi Kuneni), who has been ruling in his absence. Despite his responsibilities, and knowing there will be sacrifices, Ruth does not hesitate to continue seeing Seretse. When he finally proposes the answer is easy for her; leaving home to go with him to Africa means that they will get to be together, so she does not even pause to think, the answer is “yes”.
Culture shock, not knowing the language, and being treated like a suspicious foreigner who only wants the title of Queen are what Ruth finds in her new home. Even her own family and country shun her because of her choice in husband.
On the other hand, Seretse must fight his own battles to prove to his people that he is ready and willing to lead. Even though not everyone can see past his white wife, including his uncle, Seretse does manage to gain the trust of some. What he does not realize, however, is that even though his tribe might back him, that does not mean England will allow him and Ruth to make, what they believe to be, a political mockery of the new idea of apartheid and of the United Kingdom. The men behind England’s political game of chess will stop at nothing to keep Seretse and Ruth away from each other, even if that means banishing him from Bechuanaland.
Films based on true stories can sometimes be the hardest ones to successfully make, because in many cases the filmmakers add drastic changes to the plot to appeal to a “general audience.” While it would be surprising if parts of the plot of A United Kingdom were not tampered with to make the story more theatrical, as a viewer I couldn’t care less because the filmmaking, story, and acting beautifully held their own while keeping the message of love and unity despite differences clear.
Watching Oyelowo and Pike fall in love as Seretse and Ruth, set the tone for the whole movie. You truly felt like you were paying witness to two people feeling the flutter of butterflies from the first meeting, liking one another, and then falling for each other. The performances were natural and honest, the chemistry between the actors apparent. In fact, the chemistry was so believable that I searched the Internet to find out whether the pair had or have a real-life romance. Turns out, Oyelowo has been married to one of his other co-stars (Jessica Oyelowo who plays “Lady Lilly Canning”) in the film since 1998.
Another relationship that stood out was the one between Seretse and his Uncle. Their love and respect for one another despite any disagreements played towards the broader theme the film represents: acceptance for one’s beliefs is not always immediately received, but through persistence and setting of examples, we all have the power to change even the most stubborn of minds.
Ruth spends a lot of time proving herself to her home country of England, her adopted country of Bechuanaland, her family (both biological and marital), and also to herself. Ironically, her true strength forms when circumstances unwillingly force her to be separated from her husband. The literal distance between them forces Ruth to go from a shy, timid Englishwoman to a Queen who is not afraid to stand up for her beliefs and her people. This notable transition proving that a powerful love story does not mean the woman has to play a damsel in distress or lack a voice.
Racial division is, of course, where almost all problems stem from in the film. The director, Amma Asante, balances this theme and the romantic storyline well by emphasizing the juxtaposition of Ruth and Seretse in private, against their public lives. There is also a stark contrast between shots in England and Africa. Asante makes England look dark and mysterious; the English actors overly formal and stiff compared to the scenes in Bechuanaland where there is a unity among the people that feels unparalleled.
What is the purpose of film if not to affect its audience? Falling in love with Ruth and Seretse is easy as their characters are both real and endearing, their flaws making them that much more relatable. The difficult part of this film is the empathy and forgiveness that it asks the audience to have for those who would wish harm on the beloved couple.
A United Kingdom tells a beautiful and well thought out love story from the 1940’s while still being relevant for today’s time and audience. Superb acting, visually appealing shots, and also a lovely notion that even if we disagree in the beginning, that does not close all the doors to one day coming together side by side as members of the human species. Especially in today’s political atmosphere, I think we could all use a little hope and love.
Top Photo: Seretse and Ruth in love.
Middle Photo: The real Seretse and Ruth overlooking Bechuanaland.
Bottom Photo: Ruth, Seretse, and their daughter home at last in Bechuanaland.
Photo Credits: Andreas Burgess
There are multiple scenes between Ruth and Seretse’s sister, “Naledi Khama” (Terry Pheto) where Naledi expresses her opinion on why Ruth does not belong in Africa.
There is also a scene where Ruth is sick in hospital and Lady Lilly Canning attempts to persuade her to leave the village for a larger city with better facilities.