Amma Asante's new film A United Kingdom opens in 1947: just two years after the end of World War Two and London is finding its feet again. A young man and woman meet at a dance, fall in love and decide to marry. It's the oldest story in the book — what could be more ordinary? Yet Ruth (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse (David Oyelowo) are no ordinary couple and theirs is a most extraordinary true story.
Asante's film is a beautiful and powerful portrayal of a particularly shameful period in Britain's recent history in which Ruth is the daughter of a lower-middle-class salesman and who works in a typing pool. Seretse is the heir to Bechuanaland, the southern African country that would eventually become Botswana but at the time a protectorate of the United Kingdom. They meet after Seretse finishes his studies at Oxford and shortly before his uncle calls him back to his homeland to take up his birthright as king of Bechuanaland. The happy young couple decide to marry against the wishes of both families — and against the wishes of the British government, whose interests in this matter range from murky to downright questionable.
Still, optimistically — naively, perhaps — they press forward, hoping that their families and countries will come to accept their marriage once they have returned to Bechuanaland. Instead, what follows is a number of years of struggle, separation, courage and belief that love will indeed conquer all.
A United Kingdom is rich in its contrasts: golden, sun-parched African landscapes and grey, rainy London streets, accompanied by Patrick Doyle's haunting score. But the film's beauty goes far beyond its surface and its striking cinematography. It's a compelling story, with Oyelowo a magnetic and quietly commanding screen presence as always. Pike's role is, in some ways, more understated but it is to the actress's credit that Ruth's strengths shine through, particularly when she is forced to adapt to life in Bechuanaland in ways she had never anticipated. Her accent wavers at times — from Lardarn to upper crust — but this may stem from Ruth's own struggle to find her place in the world of which she was once so confident.
I'd like to say that the British government characters — particularly Jack Davenport's slimy Alistair Canning and Tom Felton's smug Rufus Lancaster — were caricatures (never has the phrase, "would you care for sherry?" made me rage more at the big screen), but alas, I suspect they are all too accurate.
Asante is rapidly establishing herself as a very accomplished director. As with her previous film, Belle, A United Kingdom is a complex but fascinating story about love, history, politics and race. It isn't a 'worthy' film in the negative sense of the word; it's just an engrossing, inspiring and very well-made film