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Triumph of love over apartheid and empire

Inspiring true story of Seretse Khama, the King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition.

Charlie Masters

Reporter:

Charlie Masters

Triumph of love over apartheid and empire

A United Kingdom (12A)
Running time 1hr 51mins
Rating: ****

IN 1948, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), prince of the African kingdom of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), married a British woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The ensuing controversy rocked the imperial establishment; this film,
spanning a decade, examines the little-known affair with all the meticulousness of a documentary.

In times such as these, with race issues never far from the headlines, A United Kingdom could easily have proven a schmooze-fest, a cheap cash-in; but director Amma Asante knows her audience deserves better, and the picture is an all-round treat, balancing the intricacies of contemporary politics with a wonderfully intimate love story.

Against the temptation to put to screen a scorching African romance, the action is here wisely confined to the backrooms and parlours of empire, where sherry-drinking ‘representatives’ brood and scheme. As one would expect, the cinematography is breath-taking – rarely before has the judicial stiffness of Westminster contrasted so seamlessly with the open plains of Africa, but it maintains a consistent subtlety that could have easily been lost amid the grandiosity and derring-do on display. The politicos and civil servants with a collective foot in the Khamas’ door are all odious (Jack Davenport’s role as a coldblooded bigwig has a typecast feel about it), but little is overplayed.

The first act, featuring uninspired set pieces and some decidedly shoddy dialogue, is weak and sterile, but things soon pick up once we get to Bechuanaland, with a gloriously defiant speech by Oyelowo (“I love my country … but I love my wife”) setting the tone for the rest of the movie. The central trials are gripping in the best sense of the word; while material this stirring (the overcoming of prejudice – both black and white – followed by some behind-the-scenes skulduggery) owes itself to an activist treatment, the screenplay does not afford us such liberties, prioritising character development and domestic heroism. It dignifies its protagonists without glamorising them; their struggle is tortuous and quite extraordinary, but they face it believably.

For the most part, the key players, both national treasures, opt for understated, credible performances. Oyelowo here utilises the poise (and surprising fragility) that made him so eminently watchable in 2014’s Selma; Pike’s character is a sturdy fish out of water, and she refuses to play for laughs or patronising pity-smiles. Despite their prominence, however, there’s a lot of admirable work going on around the edges – Terry Pheto, a showpiece of virtually every Africa-set feature of the last decade, moves as Seretse’s dutiful sister, while Tom Felton’s turn as a bespectacled technocrat is a hoot.

For all its touches and nuances, this is a far too modest work for the Academy, but it’s British cinema at its accessible, touching best.

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