Rated PG-13 for some language, including racial epithets, and a scene of sensuality
Screenplay by Guy Hibbert
Directed by Amma Asante
Starring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Laura Carmichael, Vusi Kunene and more
Grade: Three and a half stars
These days, you have to go to history if you want a really good romance.
Proof of that can be found in “A United Kingdom,” based on the real-life relationship between Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and the Englishwoman Ruth Williams in the 1940s. Fueled by excellent performances by both David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, the movie offers a sweet, tender look at a romance and marriage that had to overcome two countries’ worth of opposition. Though history fans might long for a touch of grit to the movie’s political intrigue, romance fans will rejoice in a love story that stands the test of time.
The movie starts in London, where Khama and Williams meet at a missionary dance while Khama is going to school. Despite her father’s racism and the fact that Khama will have to return to Africa soon to reclaim his duties, the two fall in love and become engaged. Soon, however, they realize that not only does their love need to combat racism and his country’s disapproval, but also the pressure of the newly created apartheid in South Africa and brutal pressure from the British government.
Unsurprisingly, the history has been streamlined for the movie. None of it happened quite as quickly as it seems to onscreen, and I imagine the doubts and fears of both Khama and his wife were far deeper than they explore here. Still, the movie is unflinching about the fact that the British government is firmly the bad guy, and that the American government at the time was really no better.
The real focus, however, is on the love story at the heart of all the trouble. Though both Oyelowo and Pike are older than the character’s they’re playing, both manage to communicate a sense of youthful idealism that helps make the gap less noticeable. They also have a wonderful, quiet chemistry that gives weight to the power of their relationship, and makes you believe that they really do love each other enough to go through everything the rest of the world puts them through.
Oyelowo displays his usual eloquence and commanding presence, every inch a king even when he’s not in his country. Pike, on the other hand, heads entirely in the opposite direction of her last big screen performance, 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Her Ruth is clearly a quiet, intelligent woman not used to fitting in, and it’s a pleasure to see Pike guide the character through finding her courage.
The supporting cast has some standouts as well. Terry Pheto has an excellent quiet dignity as Khama’s sister, a princess in her own right whose grace and compassion ends up being vital to the story. Jack Davenport serves the opposite purpose as Alistair Canning, a slick, cold official who exemplifies all the perfidy of the British government.
In the end, though, I’m there for the love story. Thankfully, “A United Kingdom” delivers beautifully.