David Oyelowo received a lot of acclaim for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, and for good reason. With A United Kingdom, he has returned to playing a 1960s civil rights leader, and he has once again delivered a commendable performance.
This time, Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Botswana (then known as Bechuanaland), a protectorate of the United Kingdom. He’s been living in the UK to get an education and is about to return to his native country to be crowned as king. But when he spots Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) across the room at a not-so-crowded dance, it’s love at first sight. He explains his predicament, and they agree to get married, despite both knowing that it will make some waves for both of them. Interracial marriages are a problem in both London and Bechuanaland for all of the “usual” reasons, but this one has unique challenges. The British politicians are all very nervous about how this will affect their relationship with South Africa, which is already in the first stages of implementing apartheid. And the people of Bechuanaland have concerns about a king who has taken a foreign wife, especially one whose native country is already seen as something of an oppressive overlord.
The film is based on a true story, but it’s one that I’m guessing won’t be familiar to a large portion of its audience (I know I certainly didn’t have a solid grasp on the history of Botswana), so it’s fresher territory than a lot of the historical dramas that we often get. And even if you have an idea how it might eventually turn out, it takes a number of unexpected turns along the way. Perhaps the people portraying stuffy British officials may have been overplaying their British stuffiness for comedic effect, but it’s entirely possible that’s just an accurate portrayal how they really are (or at least were at the time). But Oyelowo’s performance reaches the same high bar that he often achieves, and Pike also delivers what you expect from her. It pushes all the right buttons at all the right times, and it’s well paced and not overly long. It’s probably not going to get the awards and nominations that Selma garnered, but it’s a very serviceable film that I quite enjoyed.