A United Kingdom review: Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in fine romance

A strange, shameful chapter of history is dusted off by Amma Asante to make this earnestly stirring Empire drama

With terrific warmth and idealism – and irresistible storytelling relish – director Amma Asante gives us a romantic true story from our dowdy postwar past. And with some style and wit, she even revives the spirit and showmanship of Richard Attenborough, who I think would have really enjoyed this gutsy movie.

It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers with the bigoted British government playing a particularly shabby and nasty House Of Capulet: a story of imperialism, bully-ism, and Westminster functionaries passing off their taboo horror of interracial marrying as a matter of realism and political expediency.

With screenwriter Guy Hibbert, Asante has recovered a long-forgotten chapter of Britain’s history which deserves an airing. And Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo give beguiling performances as a white woman and black African man who fall in love. There’s an openness and ingenuous quality to the two leads which is never slushy. And given that we are elsewhere entitled to suspect de facto apartheid in Hollywood, when it comes to the issue of casting romantic leads, Asante, Pike and Oyelowo make it look easy and necessary.

A United Kingdom trailer: interracial marriage causes outrage in true story

Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a young man in London in 1947 studying law; he is fact a prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), a British protectorate which effectively submits to imperial rule – via a native tribal council – in return for security and stability. But while in London, Seretse falls hard for Ruth Williams (played by Pike) a gawky, lonely young woman employed as a typist. They get married and propose returning in uxorious triumph to his homeland – to the horror of the people of Bechuanaland, who are suspicious of a haughty white queen and Her Majesty’s government, who are terrified that South Africa will take this marriage as a provocative affront and left-ist incitement on its doorstep and could possibly retaliate by leaving the Commonwealth and depriving Britain of its gold and strategic minerals.

So the smug bigwigs – played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton – react to this cause-célèbre by doing everything they can to destroy the marriage, to undermine Khama’s legitimacy and keep the couple apart: an ordeal which requires Khama to be in long exile in London, while Ruth remains behind in Africa as a kind of hostage. Asante shows that Britain, in cringing to Bechuanaland’s overweening neighbour, was effectively attempting to revive two queasy spectres from prewar life: appeasement and abdication.

Oyelowo brings to the role something of the same stillness and poise that he showed as Martin Luther King, but in this context it means something slightly different. Opposite a woman with whom he is in love, his reticence is more human, more obviously romantic. As for Pike, the fact that she is tall makes her interestingly of equal height with her lead, a pleasing visual approximation of their equal partnership in this morganatic marriage. She has a great moment in their early days of courtship when her sister Muriel (Laura Carmichael) excitedly reads the note he has just sent, inviting Ruth to a dance and saying he could get an extra ticket if she would like to take her sister too. “But I wouldn’t like to take you!” sighs Ruth in an ecstasy of romantic certainty.

United Kingdom

She is all too obviously ill at ease in her first encounter with her husband’s (and in fact her own) subjects. Asante creates a horrendous moment of black comedy when she figures she should ape the style of young Princess Elizabeth and actually attempts doing an appallingly misjudged gloved wave while going shopping.

Meanwhile, on the home front, there is nothing but duplicity and incompetence. Prime Minister Clement Attlee is merely peevish and resentful, apparently unable to stand up to South Africa’s veiled threat. As for Winston Churchill, he is slippery on the subject – though if I have a quarrel here, it is that Asante and Hibbert decline to show Winston on screen, perhaps out of sentimental superstition that Churchill can only be depicted in a positive context.

It is part of the poignancy and anguish of this couple’s story that they are kept apart. But even when apart, or especially when apart, Oyelowo and Pike have chemistry, a rather British chemistry – their relationship convinces, perhaps just because of how restrained and decorous it mostly is. And Khama’s exile is an echo of the imprisonment that other African leaders would suffer.

Maybe any biopic risks naïveté in suggesting the agony of postwar Africa can be soothed by a love story about a handsome prince. But this movie has candour, heartfelt self-belief, and an unfashionable conviction that love conquers all - though not immediately.

• A United Kingdom opens the London film festival on 5 October and is released in the Australia on 10 November and the UK on 25 November


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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