Opening the London Film Festival, A United Kingdom brought more than just an apt title to set the tone of the city’s prestigious film event, revealing uncomfortable histories, tackling stubborn taboos and marking a recent step change for diversity in film. All this offset by its wrapping in a bona fide love story and delivered via epic cinematography.

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A United Kingdom: a bona fide love story delivered via epic cinematography

Directed by Amma Asante (Belle, 2013), the film charts the tumultuous true love story of Seretse Khama, King of the then Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and London office worker, Ruth Williams. Embarking on an interracial marriage in 1948 despite fierce opposition from all sides – both their families and the British and South African governments – it is a classic story of love conquering all else. In this case: profound and institutional racism, split family-love loyalties, and powerful political forces.

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The opening sequences feature a beautifully set and costumed 1940s London

The film is not without its flaws. Despite the beautifully set and costumed 1940s London backdrop, the first half is dogged by stilted scenes between David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Pride and Prejudice) as Seretse and Ruth, and the depiction of complex events and tensions are at times rather bluntly caricatured. But what is lacking in chemistry and nuance is made up for in rich landscapes, with auburn dust-filled scenes of rural Africa contrasting to a drizzly post-war London, and once the story picks up – so do the performances.

Jack Davenport oozes smugness as a pompous UK Ambassador
Jack Davenport oozes smugness as a pompous UK Ambassador

Pike’s Ruth comes into its own when sarcastically playing upon the feeble female stereotype, with bone dry comments and pitch perfect wry smiles – such as when facing forcible removal back to the UK while carrying Seretse’s child, she quips: “As a woman, I have no say in the matter at all”. Equally Oyelowo’s Seretse builds in various speeches delivered throughout the film, climaxing in a booming and impassioned final proclamation from atop a car. Backed by a simmering sunset, his words, which signal the first glimpses of the African independence movement, carry a weight that reaches beyond the confines of the film itself: “No man is free who is not his own master”.

Terri Pheto's plays a piercing Naledi Khama
Terri Pheto plays a piercing Naledi Khama

But it’s also the side characters that add richness to the story and illuminate its context – Jack Davenport shines as the pompous UK Ambassador, oozing smugness and belying chronic ignorance in his dealings with Seretse, looking painfully out of his depth when usurped on the King’s home turf. Terri Pheto plays a piercing Naledi, Seretse’s sister, providing a stark reminder of the animosity toward the colonizing British Empire for whom Ruth becomes an unwitting representative, captured in an excruciatingly misplaced royal wave to the village locals as she ventures out into the community. Nicholas Lyndhurst of Only Fools and Horses fame has a few brief but impactful moments on screen as Ruth’s stubbornly traditional father, reluctant to accept, firstly, his daughter marrying and starting a family with an African man and, secondly, that her actions may be a sign of changing times.

Seretse and Ruth's love story: still as groundbreaking today as it was in 1948
Seretse and Ruth’s love story: still as groundbreaking today as it was in 1948

Though steeped in untold history – Churchill’s support of apartheid to feed a British reliance on South African gold and an Empire’s anachronistic hold onto its African colonies – it as much a love story as anything else. Even to the point if it weren’t a true story, it would seem almost unfashionably unreal. Perhaps the sense of unreality is also rooted in the uncomfortable truth that what the couple so publicly and defiantly stood for over 50 years ago still seems impressive now. Where African development still stagnates, racial divides remain and political chess playing with countries and peoples persist – plus a film with a black female director and black male lead still attracts attention as groundbreaking – we haven’t come as far as one would have hoped. Still, better slow progress than none at all.

By Sarah Bradbury. A United Kingdom is released nationwide on 25th November 2016.

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You can watch the trailer for A United Kingdom here:

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