Amma Asante is no stranger when it comes to mixing the personal and political. As with her second feature, 2013’s Austenesque period piece Belle, Asante dusts off and illuminates another historic humanist story, earnestly transporting it to a global platform with a vividly crafted Hollywood sheen. A 1947 post-war London sees insurance clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and imminent heir of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) daringly lock eyes in amongst a swirl of tepid jazz music and smoke at a local missionary society dance. Their connection is instant and intimate yet also exceedingly dangerous.
Adapted from Susan Williams’ novel Colour Bar, A United Kingdom initially rushes the whirlwind yearlong courtship which is interspersed with fractured familial relations (on both sides) and vulgar societal racism. The interracial newlyweds face a searing backlash from Khama’s Bamangwato community, the apartheid government of South Africa and duplicitous British diplomats who are intent on rescinding the politically volatile marriage at any cost.
Relations are similarly frosty on either side of the hemisphere with the Bechuanaland population being less than keen in welcoming a white woman as their new queen, due to a lack of appropriate heritage. Asante judiciously balances the concerns of Khama’s tribe alongside Ruth’s own personal trepidations, ensuring all apprehensions are imparted with equal empathy. Moving from grey misty London streets to vast sun drenched African planes is nothing short of visual wonderment with director of photography Sam McCurdy drinking up the mesmeric African sunsets, emphasising the vibrant earthy tones of Botswana.
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike share a warm and authentic chemistry together as an embroiled yet doting couple facing a socio-political battle of industrial scale. Oyelowo possess a dignified restraint throughout but truly electrifies whilst delivering rousing speeches with statesmanlike finesse (a feat which was no doubt refined whilst playing Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in Ava DuVernay’s 2015 biopic Selma). Pike’s courageous and forthright Ruth is a welcome change to the tediously stereotypical Englishwoman usually portrayed in period dramas, whose stalwart intelligence shines in the face bigoted adversity. Together Oyelowo and Pike hit every scripted emotional beat and it’s difficult to not be moved by their undying devotion for each other and the Bechuanaland nation.
Throughout the surrounding political earthquake Asante allows secondary character subplots to flourish and breathe, making A United Kingdom soar way above the parapets of a middling romantic melodrama. Bolstered dialogue from screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye In The Sky) navigates the complex political stratagems proficiently whilst never underplaying the vitally tender exchanges central to the impassioned narrative.
Relishing in irresistible storytelling once again, Asante takes an empowered look at colonialism, racism and sexism – which is now a recurrent theme for the powerhouse director, who is fast becoming a deservedly predominant industry figure. The triumph of love over governmental forces is undeniably absorbing cinema and a tailormade remedy to a turbulent 2016. An enriching account of a long forgotten yet imperative part of history.
A United Kingdom is in UK cinemas now.