A United Kingdom love across the imperial lines
The much anticipated latest film offering from he inadvertent poster boy of last year’s #OscarssoWhite debate, David Oyelowo comes out in the UK cinemas today. Following on from a solid performance in “Queen of Katwe” alongside Lupita Nyong’o and Phiona Mutesi, Oyelowo is back on the big screen as the Prince of Bechuanaland (later to become first president of Botswana) in A United Kingdom.
With Guy Hibbert’s script based on Susan Williams’ s book Colour Bar, Asante retells the true, albeit streamlined, story of Seretse and his futute queen Ruth much in the same vein as she did with her 2013 period drama Belle, which opens up issues of class boundaries and British identity.
It is 1947, and the heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland, a protectorate that has been under British rule since the 1880s, falls for the plucky and ordinary Ruth.
After a year of courtship, hastily swept aside as mere preface to what follows – Seretse proposes in front of the picturesque backdrop of Big Ben. The course of true love never did run smooth though, tempestuous times signalled in the form of late night brawlers who warn Seretse to keep his hands off “what is ours.” The lovers face not only backlash from the Bamangwato people, not quite ecstatic about a white queen in waiting, as well as Ruth’s father who condemns their union.
On its own, perhaps, the story of a prince in waiting of a British protectorate wouldn’t have much to recommend, unless of course his future queen in waiting of choice can’t quite cut the mustard with the colonial powers that be, which is the curious case of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), and girlfriend, London office clerk, Ruth Williams (Rosemund Pike) – a love story in the time of colonial power writ large on the world stage where powers collide, bans executed, exiles imposed to preserve the status quo between imperial Britain and Apartheid-era South Africa.
The couple immediately court enmity from the British government in the shape of shady civil servant Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and his shadier sidekick Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton). At the heart of the enmity is South Africa’s challenge to the British: either thwart the couple or be denied access to South African uranium (vital for the British nuclear program) and gold (vital to replenish reserves following the war) and face the risk of South Africa invading Botswana.
The action moves from the gloomy British autumn to eternal African summer decorated with glorious sunsets, sweeping red dust and vast plains of warm ochre in Sam McCurdy’s cinematography. As the couple face separation with Seretse’s exile, their existence is juxtaposed brilliantly as a weather-beaten Seretse mopes under the murky London sky while Ruth perseveres to win over the Bangwato under the endless blue skies of Bechuanaland.
Oyelowo and Pike bring to life these lovers in understated passion, so much so that their subdued acting may be mistaken for a lack of chemistry. Yet, they embody a union that is solid, safe and stoic; they remain dignified till they are reunited, mirrored perfectly in Oyelowo and Pike’s measured acting.
Despite Asante’s best intentions to show Ruth’s desperation at not being accepted by the Bangwato community, there are parts Ruth comes across a little more than a “white saviour” and celebrated as such – as in the case of the Bangwato offering her gifts for helping build their mud houses – and at times as “the other” behaving infuriatingly, especially in her emotional outburst at Khama over the phone.
As for the rest of the cast, while the villains are no more that stock figures, secondary characters are sensitively brought to life with attention to detail, as more than just foils to the leads.
Little sparks of joy are sprinkled atop a period drama in the form of wry humour – timed to perfection – a little kick under the table Seretse gives Ruth to play nicely when faced with the obnoxious Canning, or the swift upper hand Ruth deals in negotiation talks with Lancaster with a smug gaze and wry smile, reminding him how the power politics have shifted between the time the couple were separated and when they reunite. Incidentally, these are the moments that really gives us a glimpse of a couple in love rather than a couple at odds and at war with colonial powers and tribal expectations.