Director: Amma Asante
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton
There is palpable excitement in the air as the 60th BFI London Film Festival prepares to open its doors tonight with its first film, A United Kingdom, screening in two cinemas tonight (including the star-studded Opening Gala of the festival), one tomorrow night and one on the 11th October. It is the third feature film from London-bred director Amma Asante, who is following up her gorgeous period drama Belle about the mixed-race illegitimate daughter of a British admiral who played a vital role in the abolition of slavery in Britain, with another delicately balanced film mixing romance and politics, albeit in a very different era.
A United Kingdom follows the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the last King of the African nation of Bechuanaland, then a British protectorate – who fell in love with a white British woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), married her, and in the process began a massive socio-political conflict between his nation, the British Empire, and the apartheid government in South Africa. Facing rampant racism at either end, and enduring relentless pressure from the biggest political forces of their time, Seretse and Ruth’s love story takes centre stage and becomes the driving force behind the birth of the country now known as the Republic of Botswana.
The film’s stellar cast delivers impeccable performances, directed expertly by Amma Asante. David Oyelowo – who also served as the film’s producer and was the one to discover the book this story is based on – shines brightly as ever, lending his booming voice and expressive face to the inspiring and fearless Seretse. There are a couple of moments in particular which are perfectly placed for an awards ceremony nomination clip (you know the ones), which may well be on the horizon for him. His chemistry with Pike is a wonderful combination of intensity and lightheartedness that reminds us of the strong bond between Seretse and Ruth. Pike is fantastic in her own right as Ruth: graceful and feminine but also possessing that British pluckiness, a spirit of light defiance that skirts carefully around the sexism she has to endure – unthinkable today, but certainly the norm at the time.
This peppering of lightheartedness is what makes the film a joy to watch. Jack Davenport’s stern Imperial figure Alistair Canning is a scary and impenetrable despotic adversary, arguably one of the villains of the story (along with his stooge, Tom Felton’s Rufus Lancaster), yet he is often ridiculed – a hilarious moment involving a glass of sherry comes to mind, as does a fluffy feathered hat and a linen suit – infusing the film’s most desperate moments with the tiniest bit of hope that surely, these idiots can’t keep our beloved heroes apart forever.
While not particularly cloying, the film does observe the conventions of true-story dramas, including a punctuation of real newspaper headlines as scene headers, as well as the obligatory epilogue juxtaposed with photos of the film’s real life counterparts. We get glimpses into the political turmoil unfurling in the background – Bechuanaland’s independence and reform into what is now known as the Republic of Botswana, the constant threat of nuclear war and South Africa’s choke hold over Britain – enough to provide context and a fascinating setting, but certainly keeping the love story of Ruth and Seretse very much in the foreground.
The verdict: 🌟🌟🌟🌟