A United Kingdom opens in 1947; Britain is still rebuilding herself physically and politically after the second World War. But geopolitics are of little concern to Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), she is content working at a firm of underwriter’s at Lylod’s of London and listening to Jazz records. It is her sister, Muriel, who has concerned herself with converting Africans to Christianity. Muriel drags Ruth along to a charity dance raising funds for the cause. It is at this dance that Ruth meets Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). They are instantly besotted with one another, bonding over their shared distain for the dismal jazz being played by a group of Englishman.
After a whirlwind courtship Seretse reveals that he is chief of the Bamangwato tribe and will have to return to Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana) to ascend the throne. The position of power has been held by his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, for the past twenty years.
The pair cannot envision a life apart. Seretse proposes and Ruth quickly accepts. This provokes swift opposition by British Officials. As well as Bechuanaland’s neighbors South Africa and North and South Rhodesia, where inter-racial marriage is banned. The couple defy opposition and get married.
A United Kingdom is a true story. The screenplay was adapted by Guy Hibbert from the critically acclaimed book Colour Bar by Susan Williams. The couple became an international sensation and their marriage was described as ‘nauseating’ by the Prime Minister of South Africa, Daniel Malan.
Together Seretse and Ruth travel to Bechuanaland. The sweeping aerial shots of the sun drenched countryside is a visual relief from the dreary, washed-out streets of London. The couple are met with stony contempt; the union is fiercely opposed in Seretse’s home country too. The role of the chief’s wife is held in high regard; the Queen is considered the ‘mother’ of the tribe. After being confronted by angry relatives, the pair share a quiet moment in which they realise that they have completely underestimated the ramifications of their marriage.
Things don’t get any easier with all four governments working to break the couple up. The political motivates of each opposing party are clearly explained, each government is scrambling to assert control over the region.
The British send Seretse tickets to the United Kingdom so they can sort out the mess. Once in Britain the government exiles Seretse from Bechuanaland for a period of five years, claiming that it is to allow the locals to simmer down. Ruth is still in Bechuanaland and is expecting their first child.
The flagrant disregard the British government has for the culture of each country they colonized is encapsulated by a British official who offers Seretse an administrative post in Jamaica as there are obviously ‘similarities’. It is a gob smacking story. Unfortunately, however, the ensemble cast of scheming politicians and haughty wives are thinly drawn. Even Seretse’s British allies are barely introduced, they occasionally pop up and say a few chummy things before disappearing again.
The biggest flaw, however, is the shallow characterization of Seretse’s uncle. In real life he was not simply miffed at the union, when he spoke at the first kgotla (tribal general council) he said he would hand the title of King to Seretse, but ‘if he brings his white wife here, I will fight him to the death.’ Whereas in the film his disapproval of the union is mostly delivered through exposition via various British politicians. This means that the film is consistently framed through a British lens, there is little exploration of the tribe’s life and their values. The village is very close to feeling like a set populated by passive extras who occasionally build wells.
The true story is more complicated and perhaps even more shocking than what is depicted on screen. British government documents about the relationship were only being declassified and released as recently as September 2013. Including this dispatch from the Bechuanaland High Commissioner, A.D.Forsyth Thompson, quoting a tribal delegation: “They were most strongly opposed to ‘black-white marriages’. ‘What the lion does the jackal will copy. This marriage is a disaster for Africa. The chief’s actions are always copied and we shall find in 25 years that many other Bechuana will have married white wives, and in another 25 years the Bamangwato will be finished, they will be like the Cape Coloureds’.”
Thankfully the characterisation of the couple is well drawn and the acting is nuanced. The pair are convincing in their devotion to one another, the portrayal of their relationship is neither sappy or sentimental. Both Ruth and Seretse’s individual experiences are given equal screen time. Their phone calls while Seretse is in exile are heartbreakingly bittersweet. When they are together the chemistry is magnetic and it is a pleasure to watch.
This is a film about people and not politics, ultimately this story is about the endurance of love. It shines the spotlight on a period of history that should be explored with more vigor as the ramifications of these geopolitical maneuvers have been longstanding.
Running time: 111 minutes
Opens Boxing Day