A United Kingdom reduces a fascinating true story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams to nothing more than a superficial paint-by-numbers romantic drama.
The fact that A United Kingdom starts with a meet-cute should be a warning shot about how the rest of the film will go. In 1947 Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a member of the royal family of what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana), is studying to become a barrister. One night, he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman working as an office clerk in London. The two fall in love, much to the consternation of Khama’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), Ruth’s father (a hilariously stern Nicholas Lyndhurst), the British Empire and, well pretty much everyone.
It’s unfortunate that A United Kingdom does not rise above such a bare-bones description of its own plot. The early scenes of Seretse courting Ruth are painfully perfunctory and lack any satisfactory character exploration. One can’t help but think the film is so desperately rushing to the Oscar-baiting ‘odds’ part of ‘love-against-all-odds’ that it leaves love by the wayside all alone with no money to call a cab. The imbalance prevents either from being effective. It is clear that Seretse and Ruth love each other very much (because they have to), it’s just not really clear why.
Unsurprisingly, when A United Kingdom does occasionally flirt with saying something deeper and more original, it becomes far more interesting. Seretse is torn not because he is a black leader of an African country under the British Empire’s rule and in love with a white woman from London, but because everyone around him believes one is absolutely incompatible with the other. Oyelowo elegantly brings out Seretse’s struggle between being a human synecdoche and a human, and the frustration of being told he has to choose one over the other. His eloquent speeches are probably the highlight of the film, but then again, they were always going to be because no-one delivers rousing, moving speeches quite like David Oyelowo.
And yet, even then the film’s impatience gets the better of it and sabotages all of David Oyelowo’s good work. The editing is unnecessarily choppy throughout, undermining characters and the plot at every opportunity. The nadir of Ruth’s time in Bechuanaland comes when she faints in the middle of the road and not a single person comes to her aid – seeing Ruth as an interloper and a threat to their kingdom. The audience’s gasps and shock at that moment lasted longer than the shot of Ruth lying unconscious in the middle of a hot, dusty road. When Seretse’s frustration boils over and he smashes a typewriter in anger, the scene is over before it hits the floor. There is never any pause for contemplation of just how great a struggle the path to love and happiness really is.
This results in A United Kingdom feeling less like an incredibly powerful story about a culturally significant relationship between two people desperately in love, more a highlights reel of their victories and setbacks. 2/5