A touching historical romance from British director Amma Asante ("Belle"), "A United Kingdom" is inspired by the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the crown prince of the Bechuanaland Protectorate (later known as Botswana) who traveled to London in the 1940's to study law, but unexpectedly fell in love with a white Englishwoman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Their forbidden romance and subsequent marriage eventually embroiled Khama's homeland, the British Empire, their own families, and the government of South Africa in an international uproar of astonishing proportions.
It's not hard to get invested in a film like "A United Kingdom": as a tale about two people who risk everything to follow their hearts, it's compelling almost by default. But for a story about such a courageous pair, Asante's film plays things frustratingly safe. The end result is simplistic, but it's still undeniably effective.
As an interracial couple, the lovers face adversity from every direction, including Ruth's army captain father (Nicholas Lyndhurst). But he's nothing compared to the world of problems that arise when Seretse's uncle (Vusi Kunene) requests that he return to his homeland to finally take up the mantle of king. Ruth expresses no doubt in leaving the life she knew behind and journeying to an unfamiliar continent, but her promise that they'll take the situation "moment by moment" is easier said than done. Once they arrive in his country, they face the rising regime of apartheid and underestimate the effect that bringing a white woman home to be queen will have on his people, who view her presence as a slap in the face.
Further obstacles in the path toward happiness include a pair of smarmy British officials (played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton, in a tidy bit of typecasting) who are portrayed as one-dimensionally villainous and willing to do anything to protect their country's lucrative alliance with South Africa.
"A United Kingdom" is well-intentioned almost to a fault, and the screenplay by Guy Hibbert (based on Susan William's book "Colour Bar") irons out any of the real-life story's more complicated wrinkles. It's all broadly drawn and ever so tasteful, but the film always looks great. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy lends chilly blue and gray tones to the sections set in London, contrasted nicely against the warm golds and oranges of Africa.
Oyelowo and Pike are both wonderful performers, and each manages to overcome some flat characterization. Throughout, Seretse and Ruth are presented as impossibly noble and virtuous. Scrubbed of anything even vaguely resembling a human flaw, they do the right thing in every instance, never expressing any doubt or hesitation over their decisions. Hibbert never bothers to show us exactly what's driving these characters to take leaps they know will only lead to more trouble. As the couple determinedly face down the odds, we're left with a well-crafted and satisfying story that's still somewhat lacking in heart or soul.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including reviews of the Oscar-nominated animated films "The Red Turtle" and "My Life as a Zucchini."