As in her previous film, “Belle” (2014), director Amma Asante dramatizes in “A United Kingdom” an obscure but significant historical event involving black characters. Unlike “Belle,” however, in this case Asante does not allow her story to be overwhelmed by period decor and costumes.
It helps that the story is a more compelling one, especially the romantic part. King Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a prince of the African British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now the independent nation of Botswana), is studying law in London in 1947 while waiting to ascend the throne now managed by a regent, his uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene).
Asante succeeds in evoking the foggy, sepia tinged postwar city, where in the midst of the rationing and bleakness nascent change and new ideas excite young minds. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), though an office worker living at home with her stuffy parents and stolid sister, is determined not to resign herself to the drudgery of a conventional life. So, when she spots the regally handsome and poised Seretse at a dance, and he sees the coltish and empathic Ruth, it’s love at first sight. He introduces her to jazz, proposes on his knees, and that clinches it.
Outside forces, however, oppose the couple, starting with a gang of knuckleheads who taunt them on the street. Ruth’s father is scandalized, as is Seretse’s uncle, and their marriage stirs up hostility from neighboring, soon-to-be-apartheid South Africa and a flummoxed Labour government.
At this point, not only is the romance disrupted but so is the narrative. Despite the lovely sundrenched cinematography of the villages and red, dusty landscape, when Asante follows the couple to Bechuanaland the film never quite achieves the redolent atmosphere or detailed authenticity of the London scenes. Nor does it provide much insight into the politics involved, fudging facts and chronology to make the hardball realpolitik easier to follow, but instead turning it into a simplistic contest between good and evil.
At least the good part is true. Vividly depicted by Oyelowo and Pike, the noble pair show that sometimes love and determination can make a difference.
A UNITED KINGDOM
Directed by Amma Asante. Written by Guy Hibbert, based on the book “Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation” by Susan Williams. Starring Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Jack Davenport. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 111 minutes. PG-13 (some language, including racial epithets, and a scene of sensuality).