A United Kingdom might be a movie about the birth of freedom and democracy in Botswana, but it has as much relevance to South Africa as it does to our northern neighbours. And while the movie might market itself as a love story that overcame severe trials, it really is a political film with a strong political message that aims to tell an inspiring story that has surprisingly been little told.
A United Kingdom follows the true events of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) who is first in line to be King of Bechuanaana land (now Botswana) who falls in love with a British girl, Ruth Williams (Rosamnud Pike) during his studies in London and how their subsequent union has to overcome the racial prejudice that was so rife during its time, especially within the British government, whose policies were severely influenced by apartheid at the time. While their whirlwind romance starts off innocently, they are very soon brought to the harsh realities when Khama has to return home to be king and faces the tension not just from the foreign governments, but within their own families as well.
The movie tells a remarkable story and once that is portrayed excellently by its capable staff. And while it starts out as a romantic drama quickly plays out into an informative and compelling political drama. And by quick, I mean the love story part does really fly by. While the couple’s relationship remains an integral part of the story throughout, the story has them fall in love quite quickly so that I can focus on the more important political tension that they faced. It’s not a bad decision, but for those looking for a nice romance film, you will be bitterly disappointed at how quickly the film moves through these scenes to get into the meat of the story.
And it’s that meat where the story really shines. While the film doesn’t try and do anything remarkable, it tells its story with a lot of heart. The film is driven by the strong performance of its lead actors who make the struggles with a world that is seemingly against their relationship, wholly believable. The chemistry between the leads is strong, which is actually a bit of a shame considering the movie has them separated for large parts due to the political obstacles they are required to overcome.
With the movie being filmed locally, it was also a good opportunity for local talent to shine, with Terry Pheto and Vusi Kunene the standouts. Terry Pheto does a subtle, yet understated turn as Naledi Khama whereas Vusi Kunene’s take as the uncle with a reluctance to accept the life of the country’s king is convincing, dominant yet also unremarkable because we’ve seen him play it before. The rest of the supporting local roles are extremely minor and so not much to comment on further.
And although the focus of the review is seemingly on the acting performances, credit must go to the director, Amma Asante, who allows them to come to the fore. While the direction could be argued as unimaginative, I think it does its job at telling the story. No fancy camera angles or interesting shots going on – simply just focusing on the actors performances and allowing the events to unfold. The same can be said of the orchestral score, which is emotive, but never overpowering. It complements the different moments in the film just right.
The biggest sleight I could give to the way the story is told is that it is perhaps a little too light in emotion. When the movie goes through dark patches and trials in the characters’ lives is often not when you feel most desperate for them. There is a lot of hurt and trouble that you would expect the characters to be facing, yet this is replaced with resolve and defiance as fitting to the objectives of the story. It’s clear the film is more a political story than a human one.
The script by Guy Hibbert ensures that the different parts of the story keep playing out and moves from one tension to the next, even if it needs to race through moments in time to get there. It makes for a more compelling film, though does perhaps skip over some chapters of their lives quite quickly.
Overall though, it’s hard to fault A United Kingdom for the way it tells its story. Yes, it could’ve been meatier, but it sets out to achieve its aim. Tell you the story of the liberation of Botswana and it does that. I would recommend most people watching this just to learn an important part of African history. There will be many movies that do a better job at exciting you, but A United Kingdom remains enjoyable and entertaining none the less.
Last Updated: December 6, 2016