Leadership Tested in “A United Kingdom”

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

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It’s always terrifically satisfying to me when a film is educational on top of being entertaining. Such is the case with Amma Asante’s excellent A United Kingdom, which dramatizes a little-known page of world history.

In 1948, Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) married a London office worker named Ruth Williams. Their interracial romance was disavowed by Seretse’s uncle, who, being the outgoing King, needed to give his consent in order for Seretse to take the throne. When the Prince stood up for himself in front of a delegation of citizens, the overwhelming support they showed him drove a wedge between the British government’s intervention in the region and the beginnings of Apartheid next door in South Africa.

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The relationship at the center of the film is consistently used as a bargaining chip for the British to force Seretse and Ruth out of the picture. Playing Seretse, David Oyelowo captures the intense emotions of the pain and futility of his situation. As Ruth, Rosamund Pike stunningly portrays a deer-in-headlights who eventually gets her feet underneath her, with both power and humility.

Oyelowo and Pike are truly spectacular here, both in terms of chemistry and of individual performances. But what shouldn’t escape your notice is the ascension of talent on display in Amma Asante’s direction. She crafts her films with a sumptuous and generous amount of joy without sacrificing sharp wit. Here, she’s also adept at finding small human moments which heighten the drama of this historical epic.

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Overall, this is a terrific film, and one which might have just stumbled into elevated importance, given our current political climate. Films like this are vital to public discourse, as they shine a light on forgotten examples of leadership and champions of democracy (Prince Seretse eventually became the first democratically-elected President of Botswana).

A United Kingdom = A

A United Kingdom is rated PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality.

-George Napper

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