This true-life account of the racial divide between blacks and whites in the 1940s needs more color.
White Queen, Black King
The romance and controversy behind the founding of modern-day Republic of Botswana, formerly known as Bechuanaland, is a terrific story. The problem is this telling of the story is remarkably bland, despite the appeal of its lead stars, David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe) as Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) as Ruth Williams.
True stories such as this one — involving international romance and the inspiration for a new nation — beg for visual sweep and emotional vigor. It’s frustrating that A United Kingdom lacks both. The photography of Botswana is disappointingly murky and most of the scenes in London feature dimly-lit, darkly-upholstered interiors. The most emotion on display is the brushing of papers off a desk in one scene of heightened aggravation. Voices are hardly raised, except for a scene involving excitable politicians in British Parliament.
At least composer Patrick Doyle (Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella) attempts to channel John Barry’s romantic film scores of yore.
In the thick of this thinness is a forbidden romance that captures the attention of Churchill and the burgeoning Apartheid movement in South Africa. It’s a romance that — fully 70 years down the road — seems much ado about nothing. That is now. This was then.
No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs
That romance is between Seretse, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, and Ruth, a lowly office worker. Seretse’s black and has spent the past 20 years studying internationally and preparing himself for the throne. Ruth’s white and bides her time hanging out with her sister and her conservative parents.
Theirs is a whirlwind romance. Whirlwind, but decidedly thoughtful and good-natured. They get to know each other by swapping vinyl LPs and attending dances. She’s a bit of a free spirit, but also strong willed. He’s a pretty good match to those traits.
Unfortunately, she’s found him right as he’s preparing to leave England and return home. That escalates the romantic pitch — strictly stately and quite less wild than most PG-13 romances.
The furor this romance kicks off is astonishing by today’s standards. Through the machinations of international politics, Seretse is at first exiled from his home country for 5 years. That’s with the aiding and abetting of his very own uncle, who is among those who forbids the union between Seretse and Ruth.
It gets worse from there for this rule-breaking couple.
Loving the African Queen
Things are no easier for Ruth, who’s instantly disowned by her father when he learns of her marriage plans. Seretse’s uncle ups the ante by questioning his nephew’s legitimacy. But all of the tension and conflict merely reinforce the couple’s decision to move forward. It’s time to take a stand.
And that stand leads to the threat of Seretse being permanently banished from his homeland.
In the meantime, Ruth gets pregnant. And Bechuanaland endures harsh living conditions; people suffer from malaria, farming is a challenge and cows are dying of thirst. But there’s hope mining operations might unearth a wealth of natural resources and unlock Bechuanaland’s ability to function as an independent nation. These are all powerful components of a potentially gut-wrenching — and thrilling — story.
British director Amma Asante has created a niche out of telling unique mixed-race stories with A United Kingdom and the well-received Belle, along with the upcoming Where Hands Touch. In this case, maybe it’s the 70-year distance, or maybe it’s a classic case of the ol’ British stiff upper lip. But A United Kingdom is pleasant and staid throughout the romancing and the politicking when instead there should’ve been more passion and power.