"A United Kingdom" — 3 stars — David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Jack Davenport, Terry Pheto; PG-13 (language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality); in general release
"A United Kingdom" may turn out to be the beneficiary and victim of its own timing. Coming so soon after last year's "Loving," which netted an Academy Award nomination for actress Ruth Negga, director Amma Asante's film poses an interesting foil to the historical topic of interracial marriage, but some audiences might find another movie on the same issue a little redundant.
Where "Loving" was centered on a quiet young interracial couple in late 1950s Virginia, "A United Kingdom," which is also based on a true story, features a more international, and even royal, setting in the 1940s.
Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is a student from British Bechuanaland, an African nation just north of South Africa, studying law in London. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) works in a typing pool, and meets Seretse at a social function. One amazing date later, Ruth finds out that Seretse is also the heir to the Bechuanaland throne, and due to return now that his studies are completed. But love conquers all, so Seretse and Ruth continue to date, quickly fall in love and decide to marry and head for Africa.
Unfortunately, no one else wants them to get married. Ruth's father George (Nicholas Lyndhurst) basically disowns his daughter, who keeps her relationship from him until they are engaged. But even Mr. Williams' scorn pales to the response on Seretse's end. His uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who is currently holding the throne for Seretse, deeply resents the notion of him bringing an English woman back as his queen, especially given Bechuanaland's geographical and political proximity to South Africa, which is in the early stages of adopting its policy of apartheid.
Suddenly, the romantic affairs of one quiet couple become the front-page fodder of an international story. Seretse and Ruth marry, move to Bechuanaland and manage to convince the people to support Seretse's prospects to be king. But this just causes a political split with Tshekedi, who actively works with the British government to banish his nephew. In the meantime, foreign parties are seen conducting mineral tests, suggesting there may be more to the opposition than simple racism.
As in "Loving," we watch the process play out both in official and in intimate fashion. "United Kingdom" isn't nearly as low-key as Jeff Nichols' film, but it does take a similar, drawn-out path to its ultimate resolution. Asante does a good job of showing the different motivations and reasons of the opposition, which are anything but unified, and the closest thing to an actual villain in the film is Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the British authority stationed in Bechuanaland, who is assisted by a nebbish Tom Felton as Rufus Lancaster.
Oyelowo and Pike are strong in their roles, and it is interesting to see the racial identities flipped from what was seen in "Loving." It's also instructive to see the African landscape and the stark and contrasting reality of being royalty in one of the poorest nations on Earth. But no one really seizes the screen and anchors the film, and without any glaring flaws aside from a slow pace, "A United Kingdom" eventually settles for a modest spot on the good section of the quality spectrum.
"A United Kingdom" is rated PG-13 for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality; running time: 111 minutes.