In a performance that will inevitably draw comparisons to his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, David Oyelowo stars as Khama, the heir to the throne of the British-ruled African country of what was then Bechuanaland. While studying abroad in post-Second World War London, he meets and quickly falls in love with office-worker Ruth (Rosamund Pike), but knows instantly that their interracial relationship will draw the ire of his uncle (Vusi Kunene), his tribe’s current King.
In fact, the marriage is not only condemned by the King, but by the British Empire and fresh-with-apartheid South Africa, resulting in political unrest and family strife – and Khama and Williams being torn apart, separated for years (and thousands of miles) while fighting to be reunited.
A deft blend of historical drama and heart-swelling love story, the film does a good job of balancing the bigger picture (racism, prejudice) with the human element (two nice people in love), never alienating viewers by becoming a Serious Issue Film nor a comparatively benign romance. The story also presents the real-life equal-opportunity bigotry that took place: the couple’s relationship is rejected just as much by the white British elite as it is by the black members of Khama’s community, making their struggle to be together difficult across the board.
Ultimately, the success of A United Kingdom depends largely on its two leads, and thankfully Oyelowo and Pike are not only terrific actors, but the pair have undeniable chemistry, which makes their characters’ romance and heartbreak compelling and believable. Oyelowo has just as many impressive “rally the troops” speeches as he does more subtle glimmers of greatness during Khama’s quieter moments. And Pike always holds her own, creating a three-dimensional woman who’s beautiful and brave, who never gives in to fear or prejudice, and who becomes a stoic heroine in her own right.
The result is a refreshing, moving and effective look at the power of love in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Though one would immediately want to know more about the real Seretse and Ruth Khama, you’d be better served to do a little Googling (though it is nice to hear that Seretse was a very kind man). The making-of featurettes talk about the challenges of filming the movie at the actual locations, including the Khama’s house. Also, it was cool to find out that their son Ian is now president of Botswana and visited the set.