History is rarely tidy enough to have personifications of complicated systems of belief like racism and colonialism, but movies nevertheless tend to present the past in such a way to simplify what seems unfathomable to modern audiences. Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” lies among these crisp-edged period pieces and stands out as one of the better of the bunch.
The film succeeds at depicting high-level concepts of segregation and prejudice that are still relevant today. Yet it also works when pinpointing the ethos of a specific moment in the late 1940s where the sun was setting on the empire in which the sun never sets. British-born Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) falls head over heels for African tribal king Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who studied in London to prepare himself to assume the throne in Botswana.
The grumblings from her ardently colonialist father could sufficiently set in motion the drama of an entire film altogether. But don’t worry, “A United Kingdom” charts the vast geopolitical complications arising from their marriage. What begins as mere disruption in a community presents an opportunity for the waning British powers to destabilize an entire region.
Guy Hibbert’s script front-loads the film’s most explosive moments – a refreshing change of pace. A fiery speech from Seretse in defense of his wife feels like the climactic moment of a more conventional story, but Hibbert situates it towards the beginning. The shocking segregation of blacks in their own country also appears primarily at the outset. These micro-level moments are just drops in the bucket of a larger narrative, one whose ever-expanding scope consumes “A United Kingdom.” Seeing how far those ripples extend proves the most fascinating component of Ruth and Seretse’s history, although little moments such as Ruth’s limp imitation of Queen Elizabeth’s wave to appear more regal to Botswanans delight along the way. B /