Director Amma Asante (Belle) wrings easy dramatic heft out of a fascinating true story that incredulously hasn’t received a screen treatment up to this point. With a crackerjack central performance from the terrific David Oyelowo, A United Kingdom mostly fends off glib dismissals of it as “Oscar bait”.
At a dance in late 1940s London, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) meets the charismatic, fiercely intellectual charmer Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), and the two quickly embark on a whirlwind relationship. When it transpires that Sereste must return to his home country of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) to claim his throne as King, he proposes to Ruth, causing a massive uproar from an apartheid-addled South Africa, his own countrymen and most aggressively the British government. With forces conspiring to keep them apart, the only constant is their love for one another.
It’s a tale that has the blatant potential for a cloying historical melodrama, but thankfully Guy Hibbert’s (Eye in the Sky) screenplay largely avoids stifling sentimentality and truisms, instead exploring these two affable figures through their tribulations and the fraught historical context of the period.
While Asante’s pic is at times constructed with a certain vacuum-formed, disinfected style, the sort that is algorithm-designed to appeal to middle-Englanders and older members of the Academy, for the most part the focal heartbreak still wins out, with Oyelowo in particular knocking his role out of the park. A rousing mid-film speech he delivers will probably remind you of how criminally he was Oscar-snubbed for his splendid work on Selma two years ago, though this film isn’t quite strong enough to push him to that upper echelon once again.
The remainder of the cast does fine work throughout; Pike isn’t in the film quite as much as you might expect (in part due to the geographical separation of the two characters for a certain period of time), but she’s a radiant delight as usual, while Jack Davenport is terrific as British envoy slimeball Alistair Canning, and there’s memorable roles for Tom Felton as Canning’s less-obnoxious second Rufus Lancaster, and Jack Lowden as legendary MP Tony Benn.
While it’s occasionally guilty of feeling a little safe and tidy, and doesn’t reach the peak of its emotional potential, this is still a rock solid drama driven by compelling characters and superb actors rising to the challenge.
A United Kingdom premiered at the London Film Festival today, is in UK cinemas November 25th and US cinemas February 17th