When the King of Botswana marries a White woman from London, can both their marriage and the country survive the international uproar that ensues?
In 1947, Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), heir to the throne in Botswana, is far from home, studying law at a university in London. During that time, he meets and marries Ruth Williams (Pike) – a fateful decision because not only is she from England, but also, she’s a Caucasian. When Seretse is called home, a rift immediately develops between him and his uncle, who has been ruling in Seretse’s absence. When introduced to Seretse’s family, Ruth is ostracized right away – they don’t want their Black King to have a White Queen. This comes at a particularly dicey time in Africa’s history as apartheid is in its nascent stages.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Botswana is under British protection and as such, is subject to their laws and regulations. With the British serving this role, they are concerned about the country’s stability given that its newly-crowned king is having an internecine familial squabble with the potential to disrupt both Botswana and England. When Seretse is summoned to London to meet with British officials over this issue, Ruth learns she is now pregnant with their first child. Things take an unexpected turn when Seretse is informed that because his marriage could cause international political problems, he will be banned from his country for the next five years.
Ruth gives birth to their daughter in Botswana while Seretse is still in exile trying to figure out how to work around his current situation. Eventually, Seretse is granted permission by the British government to return to his country, but for only one week; during this time, they expect him to repair the relationship with his uncle. While there, however, he becomes aware of an American mining company exploring the possibility of finding precious minerals or diamonds. When Seretse learns he has been deceived by the British government, can he figure out a way to permanently return to both his wife and his country where he can assume his rightful position?
Despite valiant attempts by the cast, not even their severely overwrought performances can save the soap opera melodrama that is “A United Kingdom”. Some might make an accusation of sexism if it were claimed this is something of a chick flick, but at this screening, it was clear the women in the audience were responding more to this film than the men. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you consider that its emphasis is a romance and its historic content is de-emphasized; if that was the demographic the filmmakers were attempting to reach, then mission accomplished. The sniffles and other audible reactions from the distaff viewers definitely suggested that there was more of a visceral connection from them.
Pike and Oyelowo are both fine actors, but one gets the sense while watching this movie that they are playing down to the material. After jitterbugging their way through a courtship, they marry early on in the story and find themselves expecting a baby shortly thereafter. Yes, things progress quickly, mainly because their tale soon becomes more about their separation than anything else. While there are some valuable historical tidbits included (e.g., Churchill, long portrayed in a positive light, comes off as something of a snake here), it’s basically a theme of white men are bad, until they aren’t.
Since this is based on a true story, it’s somewhat puzzling how so many of the characters come across as artificial cardboard cut-outs. Perhaps the screenplay is to blame here for not presenting these people with much in the way of authenticity. The heroes are perfect and infallible and the villains are evil and inhumane. There is no gray area here, which would certainly go a long way to making this feel more realistic; even heroes are flawed people and bad guys have reasonable (at least to them) justifications for the way they behave. But “A United Kingdom” has no time for such nuance.