David Oyelowo has been on fire of late. The British actor who was robbed of an Academy Award nomination for his role as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, has amassed a remarkable body of work over the last half a dozen years with The Paperboy, The Butler, Nightingale, Five Nights in Maine, Nina, and the Queen of Katwe.
Oyelowo is impressive once again in A United Kingdom, a fact-based political romance about one of the most remarkable love stories you’ve never heard about.
He plays Seretse Khama, the crown prince of a British protectorate in southern Africa called Bechuanaland who falls madly in love with an English girl while he’s in London to complete his law degree.
Oh, did I say she was white?
Rosamund Pike is adorable, if a little too ethereal and flighty, as Seretse’s soul mate, Ruth Williams, a sheltered, middle-class Londoner with little formal education who works as an office clerk.
Was this a scandalous romance? You don’t know the half of it!
It’s 1947 and while interracial relationships aren’t exactly illegal in England as they were in many parts of America, they were hardly encouraged.
But Seretse and Ruth, who get married less than a year after they meet, don’t simply scandalize the neighbors.
Before they are through, the lovebirds will have several nations up in arms. They will upend Britain’s long-standing policies in Africa, including its close ties with its Cold War ally South Africa, which threatens to annex Seretse’s homeland.
Director Amma Asante, who is fresh off her critical success with Belle, has an enormous amount of material here. She does a first-rate job balancing the film’s romantic and political elements. She heavily favors the love story, allowing it to subsume everything else.
The first act, which is set in a London forever foggy and drizzling, moves at a nice clip as we follow Seretse and Ruth bonding over their shared passion for jazz and dancing. The smoke-filled clubs and candlelit restaurants add a nice layer of mystery to the love story.
The film’s middle section feels the heaviest and slowest as the movie tries to keep us abreast of the political events surrounding the young marriage.
When Seretse takes Ruth back home, his uncle (Vusi Kunene), who had been ruling in his place, rebels, taking his supporters with him.
As he cogently and artfully explains, his nephew has broken a centuries-long tradition by refusing to marry someone from his own tribe. What’s more, he has married a white Brit – a member of the very people who have controlled Bechuanaland and who treat its natives with a mixture of benign condescension and open contempt.
The chief’s wife has a special role, Seretse’s uncle explains: She becomes the tribe’s mother, charged with keeping track of its mental, moral, and spiritual health.
How could tribe members ever accept Ruth as their mother?
The fight, which is handled peacefully and with open debate, is nothing compared with the misery the British decide to rain down on Seretse and Ruth. That includes the one punishment that Seretse cannot abide: permanent exile from his homeland.
A United Kingdom is less meticulous and far less subtle when it comes to the couple’s interactions with the British authorities who live in-country.
Costars Tom Felton, Charlotte Hope, Jack Davenport, and Oyelowo’s wife, Jessica Oyelowo, play the Brits as thoroughly racist snobs who are equally titillated and disgusted by the interracial couple.
A United Kingdom picks up again in its last act as the two heroes Seretse and Ruth set in motion a clever plan to outmaneuver the forces arrayed against them.
The couple helped transform their people into a democratic nation. Called Botswana, it has been one of the most stable and prosperous countries in the region.