by Joanna van der Veen
In 1948, a white English bank clerk marries an African prince. The marriage sparks a diplomatic crisis. It throws an entire African nation into turmoil. It is hotly debated in the Houses of Parliament. Sounds like a film script, right?
If you thought so, you’d be halfway there. It’s the story of Amma Asante’s latest film, A United Kingdom (2016) – but it’s actually based on real-life events. The couple in question are Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) (a fantastic David Oyelowo). Williams and Khama met in London in June 1947 and married the following year – a decision that almost no one approved of. Though they married out of love, the decision was interpreted as a political statement – by the people of Bechuanaland, by the British (who essentially controlled the country at the time) and by South Africa, where apartheid was just beginning to be enforced.
The film’s primary focus is the relationship between Williams and Khama; on the surface, it is very much in the ‘one couple against all odds’ line. As a result, it can be quite challenging for a viewer unfamiliar with the political backdrop to the story to get to grips with the political machinations driving the plot. Although this is slightly irksome at first, it is really Asante and her team’s winning brainwave. Epic love stories attract big audiences; intricate political dramas rarely do. By hooking a political drama onto an epic love story, the political drama reaches a much larger audience; a fascinating piece of history is brought back to the fore. Consequently, A United Kingdom manages to be both a tear-jerking romance and a fascinating and tense historical drama – no mean feat.
Perhaps this isn’t a surprise though, as Asante has form with such films. She accomplished a similar – though more fictionalised – feat with Belle (2013), a film inspired by a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a young bi-racial woman who grewup in the British aristocracy. Although very little is known about the real Belle, Asante wove an entrancing fictional life for her, tied to reality by the national and international events that she would have lived through.
As with Belle, whose impact was brought home by an accomplished lead performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the success of A United Kingdom is in large part down to its two lead performances. Oyelowo and Pike’s on-screen chemistry is convincing and enchanting; although they have to compress a relationship of many years into just under two hours, their characters feel well-rounded and convincing.
The attention to detail elsewhere is impressive too. On comparing the film with archive photographs of the couple, it’s evident just how much thought has gone into everything from reconstructing their house in Bechuanaland to the shoes that Ruth wears. Again, this is perhaps no surprise – in her quest to make A United Kingdom as genuine as possible, Asante insisted on shooting in Botswana, even though doing it in neighbouring South Africa would have been easier. In her words, the production crew wanted “the DNA of the country running through [their] film”.
The ongoing battle this produced against stiflingly hot temperatures is perhaps evident in some of the scenes, but this is more than made up for by the stunning landscapes that are on offer as a result. On balance, Asante and her team have achieved a remarkable goal: they have shone a light onto a country not many people know much about, brought an important story back into the public consciousness, and managed to make a cracking film whilst doing so.
Joanna van der Veen / Writer (London, UK – 1990) Joanna splits her time between freelance translation, writing and working for a local urban regeneration project. She loves films that err a little bit on the strange side, and previously worked for a multi-language radio station dedicated to independent cinema, attending a whirlwind of film festivals from London to Mar del Plata.