I was sceptical about going to see A United Kingdom. From the trailers I thought it looked like the typical film about forbidden love with racial tensions and the tagline ‘based on a true story’ thrown in for good measure.
But a viewing at Pinewood Studios left me pleasantly surprised: it’s a charming film that is as much about politics and the country of Botswana as it is about forbidden love – though the couple of Seretse (David Oyelowo) and Ruth (Rosamund Pike) is at the heart of the plot and the pair carry the film well.
The story begins in London where Ruth’s sister – who inexiplcably has an east-end accent when Ruth’s is very home counties (as Pike ususally is) – invites Ruth to a missionary dance. While she is there, she and Seretse catch each others’ eyes across the room. She laughs at his jokes and he sweeps her off her feet on the dancefloor – it’s love at first sight. It’s only after the second date that Ruth discovers who he really is: Seretse Khama, heir to the thrown of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and he must return there soon as he has finished his studies in London.
During a brief period of courting, they experience abuse on the street for being a mixed race couple, and face objection from Ruth’s father. As her sister puts it: “Daddy won’t like Seretse; he’s more clever than him and he’s black.” But the pair decide that they are very much in love and want to spend the rest of their lives togther.
So Seretse proposes to Ruth and asks her to come to Botswana with him. She accepts, of course, or there would be no story. The happy couple are not welcomed with open arms, but are instead met with disdain from the people in the Khama’s tribe. A white woman is not seen as fit to be queen of the Botswanan people, despite Ruth’s effort to integrate and learn the language.
Seretse’s uncle in particular disapproves. But this is more than a domenstic squabble when a royal family is ivolved, it becomes a state affair. But unlike Prince Edward who chose to renounce the throne to be with Wallis Simpson, the American woman who stole his heart, Seretse loves both Ruth and his people and still wants to claim his rightful place as ruler of the Botswanan people.
But there are not just domestic and internal rows: the British and South African governments get involved. Queen Victoria pledged to protect Botswana when Seretse’s grandfather was King, so the Brits still have a stake in the country. But bordering with South Africa, the courty has ties here too – where apartheid is currrently taking place, so obviously they are not happy with a white woman marrying the black King.
The pair fight for their love and for Seretse’s place on the throne, while Seretse equally fights for democracy and equal rights in his country as segregration is already spreading: one Ruth’s first night in Botswana, she stays in a hotel for Whites only – Seretse is only allowed in becuase he is the Prince, but even then they have to hide out in their room, dancing to the music playing through the walls from the bar and drinking gin and giggling like teenagers hiding from their parents.
The film is well shot, with great contrast between the grey, rainy scenes of London and the rich reds and brown of Botswana. Pike looks beautiful as ever, wearing barely a scrap of makeup and a variety of colourful printed tea dresses as she tries to make a good impression with Seretse’s family and people; his aunt is particularly ferocious and hard to impress.
Seretse and Ruth face plenty of hurdles in their relationship, and you wonder if it’s worth it. But they never give up. And become something of a symbold of hope and race relations, somthing which is commented upon at the end of the film in a quote from Nelson Mandela, stating how the Khama’s did great things for race relations.
The end of the film left me with a lump in my throat; it is a charming and moving film and it’s a shame that it hasn’t received any BAFTA nominations. It’s very much a British film – produced by BBC Film and BFI and about a period in British history. It’s scary to think that all of this racism and colonialism happened not so long ago, but it is an uplifting film nonetheless.