Often when I return from seeing a film I get straight onto the internet to learn more. Where it was filmed, or about the actors, or about the times in which it was set – how close to reality it may or may not have been.
For example, until I saw One Half of a Yellow Sun, I didn’t realise that Nigeria had gone through a civil war, even though I was raised on the mantra of eating all my food, because I should “think of the children in Biafra”.
Nor did I know anything about Botswana’s political history until I saw A United Kingdom. Heck! I hadn’t even thought of its precise geography, even though I well knew where Lesotho sits, as I had friends of friends who moved there. I certainly didn’t know that it was formerly called Bechuanaland, nor that it had once been a British protectorate. And as for a love affair between a Black King and a White Commoner? Honestly, if you wrote this as a novel, people would think you’d made it up.
So over to Richard Alaba for his thoughtful review.
A UNITED KINGDOM (2016) – Guest Review
Richard Alaba, CineMuseFilms,
Member of the Australian Film Critics Association
A United Kingdom (2016) is an historical bio-pic of forbidden love and political intrigue. Beautifully filmed on location in exotic Botswana with a top-tier cast, it tells the true story of British colonial exploitation in a small powerless country and an inconvenient romance that threatened the Empire’s strategic interests in South Africa in the 1940s.
At a time of heightened post-war racial tension, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is recalled from Oxford to assume his hereditary throne as King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Soon before departing he meets and falls in love with office worker Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), telling her he cannot leave England without her. Within days they are married against the wishes of both families and the British Government. His small impoverished nation is under self-interested British rule that does everything in its power to prevent the couple from assuming the throne as King and Queen. When diamond deposits are discovered, the nation hopes for a better life for its people but Britain has other priorities. The couple are manipulated like pawns on a chessboard, and Britain successfully stalls Seretse’s plans to lead his people.
This is a finely crafted portrayal of the love between a black king and a white woman. It could have become mired in melodrama but the acting performances are superbly restrained. David Oyelowo has an Obama style of oratory and captures the manner and bearing of a king desperate to help his people. He portrays his first and only experience of love with depth and authenticity and his proposal scene is delightful. Rosamund Pike is convincingly expressive across an emotional roller-coaster where a young British girl is so trusting of love she can leave her country for a harsh, unknown, and beautiful land. Far from a meek office girl, she rises to meet her challenges with strength and dignity. An excellent support cast of well-known actors play British arrogance and condescension so well that audiences jeer when their political games are thwarted.
There are two stories intertwined in this film and for it to work both have to be self-sustaining and in balance. A love story inside a political drama is not an easy mix, but excellent directing keeps both stories working together to produce an engaging and inspiring film. It also shows that great moments in history are made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The postscript lets us know that Botswana survived British political interference to become a successful self-governing nation with Seretse as its first president. This is the outstanding historical bio-pic of the year.
Director: Amma Asante
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport