The fascinating history of southern Africa and its complex relationship with the British Empire gets the love story treatment in A United Kingdom. This based-on-a-true-story drama comes from Belle director Amma Asante, and features her lovely and delicate, but urgent touch. Asante's take on Guy Hibbert's screenplay has resulted in a swooningly romantic film that doesn't shy away from investigating race and politics as well.
Set in the aftermath of World War II, Rosamund Pike plays Londoner Ruth Williams. After bonding with the charming Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) over a mutual love for jazz, Ruth finds herself whisked out of the typing pool and away to the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (present day Botswanaland), when it turns out that her new beau is the small, poor nation's incumbent king. With the shadow of apartheid weighing on Britain's relationship with neighbouring South Africa, however, it turns out that Seretse's quest to make Ruth his bride is fraught with the threat of political disaster.
It's remarkable that a film in which both of the romantic leads play a relatively passive role - they are more-or-less at the whims of the tides of bureaucracy - is so absorbing and well-paced. Part of the reason this love story succeeds to well is not only its excellent pacing, but also the performances of the two leads, which make the courtship and marriage feel remarkably real. Oyelowo is soft spoken and stoic as Seretse, but his tenderness and dedication shine through in the heartfelt performance. For Pike, this is a very special role, and she gives her all as the seemingly meek but ultimately profoundly strong Ruth, who later became an icon of civil rights in southern Africa.
Though the finer political aspects of the story can sometimes feel glossed over to the disadvantage of the audience, there is for the most part excellent balance between the personal and the political in this story in which the two are so entwined. The toxic effects of British imperialism and white supremacy are on full display, coming through in the tense and electric scenes between Ruth and Seretse's extended family, but also between Ruth and British officials who see her as nothing more than an inconvenience, stuck between two worlds that won't accept her.
The narrative arc of A United Kingdom makes it feel as if at times its title may become a bitterly ironic one. There is a grit and emotional desperation as Ruth and Seretse are separated for large portions of the film, between beautifully rendered and location shot period versions of London and Botswana. Like many romance films, it can often feel slightly sanitised, but the emotional depth is fully present.
A United Kingdom is above all an honest movie - it delivers a happy ending without being patronising, without wrapping itself up in rosy package. In another's hands, this could have been a hopelessly saccharine film, but Amma Asante's films prioritise the humanity of characters above all else. It's not a masterpiece, but A United Kingdom is one of the better romantic dramas you are likely to see this year.
A United Kingdom opens in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.