*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
Telling a story that happened in real life is always difficult for a movie to do. Most of the time there are so many events within one big story that it is difficult to tell any of them fully, or to figure out which ones are the important ones, the ones that need the majority of time devoted to them to make the entire event make sense. A United Kingdom is no different – while it tells the story of a couple whose marriage helped forge an entire country, there are many different stories that take place on the road to that country uniting behind that couple, and so this nearly two hour movie must tell several stories without dragging itself out and putting its emphasis in the correct place. What A United Kingdom chose to do was emphasize the love story and tell the story of a country’s unification as a resulting side story. This is a bit of a disappointment, because the love story is shaky, but the story of how Bechuanaland became Botswana is rock solid.
In the late 1940s, when the African country Bechuanaland was a British protectorate (meaning that Britain was in control and “protecting” Bechuanaland), the future king of the African nation Seretse Khama (another stunning performance from David Oyelowo) is studying in London to prepare himself take over the throne that his uncle is currently holding as regent. In London, Khama meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a British typist, and the two fall in love. Their romance becomes the target of racist comments, but Khama still asks for Williams’ hand in marriage, and their love becomes a political land mine. The people of Bechuanaland do not want to accept a white woman as their queen, and because of South Africa’s new legislation that forbids interracial marriage, Britain takes attempts to intervene in the marriage, first by threats, then by exiling Khama from Bechuanaland altogether. Khama and Williams, believing that their love can conquer all, must stay true to themselves and their marriage in the face of opposition from every corner, and they must find a way to free Bechuanaland from the grasp of those who seek to control its resources and make it a country in its own right.
While the majority of this story is about the romantic relationship between Khama and Williams, its greatest strengths are when it puts that relationship aside and focuses on the politics of what is happening in their world, both between Khama and the British employees who both belittle and threaten him, and between Khama and his people who are in love with him but cannot understand how a white woman could ever understand their lives. The movie starts with the romantic relationship between our main characters, however, and it takes us awhile to even see them surrounded by the people they are attempting to win over. The beginning of the movie then becomes very stereotypical – a slightly racist family who disowns their daughter, getting attacked on the street because a white woman and a black man are walking together, the us-against-the-world optimism – and it’s a little cloying. It’s not until the couple arrives in Africa that you start to see the deeper roots of the story show. You begin to see how segregation has made its way into Africa (even there, there are separate water fountains, the black people who come into ‘town’ cannot drink alcohol, they require a white person at their councils to oversee them) and you finally start to get invested, wanting to know more about this culture and how it is being barred by its ties to Britain. But the script keeps going back to the love story, to these moments where Khama and Williams insist to each other again that they can overcome anything with their romance, and you start to want them to move along – we’ve heard this already. Get back to trying to get the British to stop drilling in your land.
Because of scenes that quickly cut to quickly move on and odd transitions between the gloomy and grey London and the sunny, beautifully shot plains of Africa, the real power of this film comes from its actors. Oyelowo is by far the strongest performer, rousing the audience with his speeches to his people and to the diplomats who try to curb him at every turn, and his constant pull between his love for his country and his love for his wife is consistently excellent. He gives his greatest speech partially in trailers – “I love my people! But I love my wife!” – but some of his best work comes during his banishment, because then you can really see him practice what he preaches. He misses Williams, of course, but the moment he is told that he cannot return home is actually enough to crack your heart, and his continuous strength in the face of a life out of his homeland but still attempting to make sure that they are treated fairly, given a chance to make themselves greater, is enough to make you forget your annoyance with the cliched lines of love he must deliver over the phone.
He is also almost enough to balance out his costar, because Pike’s part as Ruth Williams is not one I can fully get behind. Despite the fact that Williams is given to be an equal partner to Khama, to have earned the love of his people and proven herself worthy to be their queen, you never actually see any reason that this happens. When she first comes to the country she is greeted by Khama’s sister Naledi (Terry Pheto) and his aunt (Abena Ayivor), and they both tell her, in no uncertain terms, that she knows nothing about their life and she insults everything they stand for by just being there, by assuming that she can learn to be their queen. Throughout the course of the movie, you see both women grow to accept Ruth, but for the life of me I cannot understand why. To be fair, it’s not that she doesn’t try – there are scenes that show her breaking down because she is out of her depth and can’t connect to this new world she doesn’t understand – but the other women start to accept her with little to no real event that proves she is worthy of the title of queen. Later in the film after the acceptance has already begun, Williams spends her day helping out the local women with their chores, but that hardly seems like it is enough to convince the country that she is worthy of their king.and country. This could be a fault of our ignorance of the customs of this country, just like Williams’, but the film does not attempt to clarify this, leaving the audience floundering like Williams, and it does the country a disservice by not trying to make their story understood in it’s entirety.
When a story is fundamentally a true one, it’s hard to figure out why it isn’t working. Is it the actors and actresses and their portrayal of characters? Is is it the script trying to work a big tale into just two hours? Or is it just that the story being told is not one that can be told without changing it to something it was not? A United Kingdom is a fascinating tale, one that I can guarantee almost no one knows. The issue may be that it focuses on the part of the story that makes it like Loving (2016), and that is a part of the tale that can only take you so far. If the story had been told about the country, not just the two people at the head of it, it may have been even more powerful, but for now, A United Kingdom is several stories about the one great culmination of a nation, and the two people who stood at the head of it.
4 / 5
James Norrington (Jack Davenport) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) seemed destined to be jerks, no matter what kind of weird facial hair they grow.