Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo shine in this story of unlikely real-life lovers — one who just happens to be the Prince of Bechuanaland. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
It’s 1947 London, and a couple walk, late at night, under the lamplights on a sidewalk shrouded in feather-soft fog. Their faces glow with love as the music swells; they are, in their elegant ’40s garb, the very picture of period romance.
Sounds like a movie you’ve seen before? Look again. “A United Kingdom” is the fresh and fascinating tale of a pair of unlikely real-life lovers: Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), an office clerk living in postwar London with her middle-class parents and sister, and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a visiting student who just happened to be the prince of Bechuanaland (then a British protectorate, now the Republic of Botswana). They met at a party, bonded over a shared love of dancing and jazz, and after a proper courtship they married — to the horror of her family and his nation. Tabloid headlines in Britain trumpeted “Black King, White Queen.”
Movie Review ★★★½
‘A United Kingdom,’ with David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Terry Pheto. Directed by Amma Asante, from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert. 111 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality. Pacific Place, Lincoln Square, Guild 45th.
Director Amma Asante’s previous work, the deft 2013 drama “Belle,” would make a thoughtful companion piece to this (in it, a mixed-race young woman grows up among white nobility in 18th-century England). Here, we watch both Seretse and Ruth as fish in murky, unwelcoming waters. In London, Seretse is met with condescension, misunderstanding (Ruth’s father wonders how many wives he’s left behind in Africa) and cruelty. An unctuous diplomat, played by Jack Davenport, does all but rub his hands together in glee as he schemes to keep the couple apart.
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And in Bechuanaland, Ruth’s naive belief that love will conquer all is sorely tested, as members of Seretse’s family greet her with eyes flashing with hostility. “You insult us all,” she is told, in chilly tones. How can a white Englishwoman become “mother,” as a queen is called, of a black African nation?
But this romance — which almost seems written for the big screen (why was this not made into a movie long ago?) — ends as all love stories should: with a couple in each other’s arms, and with informative endnotes telling us of their long and loving marriage. The chemistry between the two actors is a pleasure: Oyelowo’s Seretse can both deliver a barnburner of a speech and put a gentle world of meaning into a quiet “Thank you, my love”; Pike’s Ruth wears her wide-open heart on her face. Together, in this appealingly old-fashioned movie, they create a world.