English director Amma Asante’s follow-up to her similarly factually-based Belle is a bigger, trickier, more sprawling epic, and yet the performances save it, even if there’s one speech too many.
In 1940s London we meet Ruth Williams (nicely portrayed by Rosamund Pike, and about a thousand miles from her Gone Girl character here), who locks eyes with and immediately falls hard for dishy Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo).
They could hardly be less alike: she’s from a conservative, quietly racist family and is stuck with a typist’s job (although in a proto-feminist touch she hopes to somehow transcend it), while he’s a law student, boxer and an honest–to–goodness prince. But love naturally blossoms anyway.
Their decision to get together has huge consequences. He must return home to Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and take up his royal duties with a white woman as his bride, which, at first, displeases his family and his people, and yet their marriage is further troubled by the role of the British government and their increasing presence in the region, especially as Apartheid was on the way in.
The malevolent Establishment is mostly represented by the smugly nasty Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport, subtly unpleasant) and the more military Rufus Lancaster (sneering Tom ‘Draco’ Felton), and sequences where they try their best to keep Ruth and Seretse apart and control his homeland sometimes seem almost like the nefarious work of fictional movie villains. But no: this really happened.
With a script by Guy Hibbert drawn from Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar, Asante’s biographical drama benefits greatly from the fine, measured playing of Pike, Oyelowo, Terry Pheto as his disapproving sister and others, while the sweeping landscapes and strong location filming add a sense of vastness, and help to remind you of the magnitude of what’s at stake here.
After all, if ever there was a couple who were entitled to describe their relationship as ‘complicated’, it’d be these two.
Rated PG, A United Kingdom is in cinemas from Monday, December 26