A black man living in London in the late 1940s meets a white woman and they fall in love. Controversial, for the time, perhaps – but throw in the fact that he is the soon-to-be-King of an African country currently under the protection of the British government and things suddenly get a lot more complicated.
The opening night film for London Film Festival 2016 saw director Amma Asante (Belle) return for another story based on the lives of real people. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) sacrificed and risked a tremendous amount to be together and – in a time where many feel increasing divide in our own not so united kingdom – this serves as a stark reminder of what love can actually achieve. This may sound like complete sentimental nonsense but, thanks to these two lead actors, their supporting cast and a brave director not scared to keep the focus on the heart of the piece, A United Kingdom manages to pull off something beautiful, powerful and honest.
Seretse and Ruth are a force of nature, both bringing so much heart and determination to everything they do in life – and this is something captured beautifully by the two lead actors. At the press conference that followed, Pike reflected on the teary reaction she had after seeing actual photos of the couple. ‘You saw the love and you somehow underneath that saw what it had cost them,’ she commented. When asked about Ruth, in particular, Pike added that she had a lot of ‘pluck’ and noted that ‘I find her spirit so gorgeous’.
There was also a lot of discussion about diversity in cinema, both with regard to women and to people of colour – something Asante is only too familiar with. There was also discussion about how a film is marketed. As Pike noted, films like this are often placed alongside the likes of Selma and 12 Years a Slave, just because of the colour of the cast. However, in this instance, despite the huge political implications of the story, A United Kingdom is a love story, plain and simple. With his wife, Jessica Oyelowo, sat at the end of the bench, David Oyelowo acknowledged that there are many stories about lust but this one is unashamedly focused on love and all the joy (and heartache) that it can bring.
Yet the focus is not simply on Seretse and Ruth. It is far wider than that. Ruth moves to Seretse’s country to be with him and she must deal with being away from home and connecting with a people and a country with which she is unfamiliar. A United Kingdom is about acceptance and tolerance, and judgement and fear, and it shows how working together has the potential to change the world – for the better, if we let it.
There is a lot to be sad about in this film – tears may well be shed – though it never wallows in misery. The characters must keep moving forward, and so does the film. Helping keep the lighter tone is a delightful combination of some deadpan humour from Jack Davenport and a delightful lightness to the ease that exists between Oyelowo and Pike. Balance is something of which Asante is clearly conscious. In the press conference, she talked about wanting both the intimacy of a close, character-focused story, and the context of the wider world existing around it – and making sure that the balance was just right.
This is a story that needed to be told and it has been told tremendously well. The horror and pain is never dwelled on for too long which some viewers may find a little too saccharine for their taste, yet A United Kingdom brings with it the kind of positive, uplifting, happy tears that perhaps we could all use a little more of at the moment.