This year’s Toronto International Film Festival screened two films that seemed to tread similar ground. We have to wait until next February to see Jeff Nichols’ Loving, the true story of an interracial marriage in Virginia in the late 50s. First, however, comes Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, based on another story from recent history, this time the marriage between Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Ruth Williams, a London office worker.
We’re taken back to the late 1940s, with Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) studying in London when he meets and quickly falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Despite opposition from their families and the British government, they marry and return to his homeland. But his people are reluctant to accept the relationship and the couple find themselves entangled in the political fight for his succession to the throne – and his country’s independence.
When the couple met in 1947, it was against the background of India celebrating independence from the British. Not that it’s mentioned in the film, but it explains why the government tried its utmost to squash the possibility of the interracial marriage taking place the following year. At the time, Bechuanaland was a British protectorate with a ruler who was little more than a figurehead. The British called all the shots, trying to hold on to what was left of a rapidly crumbling empire and to keep neighbouring South Africa happy. A South Africa in the process of introducing Apartheid, which was already spilling over the border.
All of which gets in the way of the couple’s plans – and it becomes an uphill struggle. In her first film since Belle, Amma Asante has directed a film that surefootedly walks the tightrope of racism. Concentrating on Kahama’s battle with the British government would have been the easy option, but the attitudes of his people to the prospect of having a white queen are given equal weight and screen time. It’s not an approach that we’re used to, but it gives the film balance and a certain maturity, helped by sensitive performances from both Oyelowo and Pike, who are excellent, both together and individually.
But it can’t quite resist the temptation of convention – and the occasional cliché. There’s the mandatory sweeping African landscapes, complete with the equally mandatory galloping giraffe, and when the location switches to London, it’s raining. Always. When it’s not, it’s foggy. Jack Davenport’s fictional and slippery diplomat is too close to a pantomime villain, especially when he’s in ceremonial dress. And a little more of Ruth acclimatising to the practicalities of life in Botswana wouldn’t have gone amiss, especially given the scorching temperatures. By the standards in the country at that time, she would have been living in luxury, but it was nothing like what she was used to at home.
That said, it doesn’t prevent the film from being sincere, worthy and with a strong emotional pull. It’s something of a contemporary history lesson – one that certainly deserves an audience.
A United Kingdom is released on Friday, 25th November.