VOD film review: A United Kingdom
Ivan Radford | On 23, Mar 2017
Director: Amma Asante
Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton
Watch A United Kingdom online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Do you know the story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the London office worker he married in 1948? Don’t worry: not many people do, including those in Botswana. Their whirlwind romance, which faced stern opposition from Seretse’s uncle, the apartheid-ruled South Africa, and the British Empire (in bed with South Africa at the time) is the subject of A United Kingdom.
A star-crossed romance breaking social taboos and challenging a political behemoth? It might sound like heavy going, but the film’s success lies in balancing their personal struggles with Seretse’s national battle. Guy Hibbert’s script, based on the book by Susan Williams, reaches the simple, effective conclusion that there isn’t distinction to be made between them: the two fights are often one and the same, whether that’s striving to stay together, facing everyday racism in the streets or shouldering their joint responsibilties in Bechuanaland.
It’s brought to life by two British talents at the top of their game. David Oyelowo, who jumped from standout star of Spooks to Oscar-worthy A-lister with Selma, is marvellously charismatic as the heart-on-his-sleeve king, while Rosamund Pike as his wife continues to prove more and more versatile – here, her facial expressions switch from the rush of first love to the sadness of losing it with astonishing speed.
Director Amma Asante, who demonstrated her skill at telling untold stories with Belle, lets us bask in their shared joy, before separating them for most of the runtime, a trick that brings real catharsis to their efforts to be reunited – a reunion that has huge ramifications outside of their own lives.
Asante’s hand on the tiller is quietly assured, able to keep things light-hearted enough to be accessible, while still delivering a story of political weight without become heavy-handed. Even the villains resist the urge to become caricatures, with Jack Davenport and Tom Felton providing stern opposition as UK officials without overplaying their prejudice – for all its emotional urgency, the British Empire’s refusal to work with Seretse and his wife is insitutional not personal, which makes their despicable treatment of the duo all the more horrifying.
It’s a difficult tone to maintain, but Asante does so with minimum fuss, never distracting us from the stirring romance at the tale’s heart. The result is a rousing, universal piece of cinema that turns an almost unbelievable story of love overcoming all into something compassionately, shockingly believable. This is a crowd-pleaser that deserves the biggest crowd possible.
A United Kingdom is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on BBC iPlayer until 10th November 2020.