The story of King Seretse Khama of Botswana and how his loving but controversial marriage to a British white woman, Ruth Williams, put his kingdom into political and diplomatic turmoil.
When I saw the trailer for A United Kingdom I thought it looked like pure Oscar bait. From the cast to the biographical/historical nature of the film, I was expecting it to get some kind of awards recognition. But it also seemed like it could be a rather run-of-the-mill, awards-fare film that doesn’t actual excite when you sit down to watch it. Alas, I’m kind of shocked by how this film turned out — almost the reverse of what I expected.
David Oyelowo got no love from the Academy, not even a nomination for Best Actor, and even Rosamund Pike (though up against a tougher Best Supporting Actress crowd), didn’t even seem to be on the radar for Academy members. Which is a shame because both of them deliver truly solid performances as Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Pike). Khama is the stronger of the two characters as Ruth just seems kind of shy and blank for a decent chunk of the beginning. I can get the shy aspect of her character — she’s being thrown into the deep end of a whole international “scandal” and has little-to-no idea how to react — but it’s the blankness that brings her character down in the beginning. Instead of acting like a fish-out-of-water, Ruth just seems lost; like she has no clue about what’s going on. Which, as you see by the end, is not the case: she understands what’s going on and really turns the corner into a tour-de-force of her own.
What really pulled me in to A United Kingdom however was something quite transparent: pacing. Quite often with biopics that cover a wide range of time as this does, the film can easily feel disjointed. This one set of things happens at the beginning (e.g. Seretse meets Ruth) and then an entirely different set of things, which could be its own film, happens at the end (e.g. international drama resulting from their marriage). A United Kingdom is decent enough, and under most circumstances would’ve netted it a four-star, Amma Asante’s direction and timing really put this film above the top. It really flowed from beginning to end and I was shocked to discover we were at the end of the story when the credits began to roll. I was really engrossed — much much more than I was consciously aware of — into this story. Even the “slow” moments had their time and place in this film and didn’t detract, or bring me out of, the film as a whole.
I may be overrating it based on these few small details alone, but that doesn’t mean A United Kingdom can’t stand on its own. Perhaps the other films were more worthy of their nominations, but it doesn’t mean you should see this film any less. It’s a story about “otherness”, about love, and about determination. A lot of drama/romance films focus on a couple determine to fight the odds to stay together, but it’s different with Seretse and Ruth: they have a much bigger hill to climb and the risks/consequences can have an actual impact.
5 out of 5