A biopic about a remarkable love affair that had enormous political consequences. (Review: Patrick Compton - Rating 8/10)
There’s now a sizeable genre of films that shine an unflattering light on various unsavoury chapters in Britain’s colonial history. Amma Asante’s new movie about the inspiring love affair between an African Paramount Chief and a London typist represents a considerable addition to that grouping.
Asante, born and brought up in England but of Ghanian extraction, first attracted public attention with her 2013 film, Belle, set during the late 18th century when the campaign against the slave trade gathered momentum. A United Kingdom, a true to life account of an epic romance, is set just after the end of World War 2 when the Labour Government under Prime Minister Clement Attlee was trying to usher an exhausted country into a brave new socialist world.
Brave is hardly the word, however, to describe Attlee’s response to the whirlwind romance and marriage of the Paramount Chief of the Bamangwato people, Seretse Khama, and a white London clerk, Ruth Williams. The prospect of Khama (David Oyelowo) and Williams (Rosamund Pike) returning to the Protectorate of Bechuanaland (later to gain independence as Botswana in 1966) as that country’s chief and first lady gave him a profound attack of the nerves and a retreat into old-fashioned racism.
The film has a scene in Parliament where the hand-wringing Attlee (Anton Lesser) shows he is far more concerned about appeasing neighbouring South Africa – which was outraged by the relationship – than in providing support for Khama. The realpolitik Attlee identified was that Britain could not afford to miss out on profits to be made from the gold mining industry and making sure of South Africa’s support in the cold war against the Soviet Union.
This is a film, therefore, that prefers to focus on the trials of love rather than provide a detailed portrait of it. The early scenes, where Khama and Williams jive in jazz clubs and walk the foggy London streets are well done but brief. Fortunately, Oyelowo and Pike’s committed, sympathetic performances ensure that we believe in the strength and authenticity of their relationship on the skimpiest of evidence.
All manner of social and political obstacles are raised to stymie their marriage and Khama’s ambition to return to his country and inherit the chieftainship. On the English side there are the oily, reptilian Oxbridge diplomats with cut glass accents (Jack Davenport and Tom Felton) who conspire to destroy the marriage and keep the couple apart. While Khama is forced to return to England where he is promptly exiled, his wife, now pregnant, elects to remain in Botswana where she slowly grows in popularity.
There were also barriers erected by the Bamangwato people, with Khama’s uncle and regent, Tshekedi Khama (South Africa’s Vusi Kunene), outraged that the future king of Bechuanaland had brought home a “white queen” and thus rocked centuries of tradition. Williams receives some support in Africa, principally from Khama’s sister Naledi (SA's Terry Pheto), but there are times when the noise engulfing their relationship becomes deafening.
The divide and rule tactics employed by the British are not pleasant. One shudders to see the British government’s craven appeasement of the South African prime minister, DF Malan – the movie’s unseen, malign influence who was in the process of setting up the foundations of apartheid – and their ruthless attempt to exile Khama from his country. But this, of course, is only to note the political dimensions of the film.
Essentially, A United Kingdom is a biopic about a remarkable love affair that had enormous political consequences. In this respect, Oyelowo and Pike are pinpoint castings. The former, excellent as Martin Luther King in Selmo, replicates that character’s stillness and oratorical power, while Pike’s character grows in self-confidence as she gradually becomes Khama’s rock.
Visually, the film is beguiling, with London’s murky streets contrasted with some ravishing Botswana exteriors.
Based on Guy Hibbert’s script adapted from Susan Williams’s 2006 book, Colour Bar, A United Kingdom showcases Asante’s talent for making the personal political, and the other way round. In essence, this crowd-pleasing biopic proves that love really can conquer all, although not immediately.
Movie released in Durban on December 9, 2016, and running at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway. – Patrick Compton