David Oyelowo, born in England to Nigerian parents, is an actor of blazing talent and rare grace. On screen, he’s stirring and soulful as Martin Luther King in Selma; on HBO, he’s chilling and heart-piercing as a war vet coming apart in Nightingale; on stage, doing Shakespeare, he’s miraculous at capturing the stature and tragic weakness of the Moor in Othello. So to say that Oyelowo is giving one of his best and most electrifying performances in A United Kingdom – that means something. He’s set the bar high.
Based on the Susan Williams book Colour Bar, director Amma Asante’s drama is a true story (not “Hollywood true” – actually for real). Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (later Botswana). When we first meet him, in 1947, this king-in-the-making is studying at Oxford, dressing posh and falling in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, sublimely subtle), a London office clerk. She’s white. He is not. When Seretse proposes, both families object. When they marry, Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) threatens to disown her; Seretse’s uncle, (Vusi Kunene), who’s been serving as regent in his nephew’s absence, advises him to abdicate. All is lost, until it isn’t.
In the wrong hands, A United Kingdom could have gone the way of soap opera or, worse, dull rectitude. But in Asante (Belle, A Way of Life), born in London to Ghanaian parents, this poignant story has found a livewire advocate. Working from a careful (maybe too careful) script by Guy Hibbert, the filmmaker blends the story’s romanticism with a political savvy that gives the film a spine. It’s not interracial marriage that really horrifies the British government – it’s fear of losing power, money and minerals. Bechuanaland, a British protectorate, is in whispering distance of South Africa, which is just heating up its racist policy of apartheid. A mixed-race marriage might endanger British access to the nearby region’s gold, uranium and minerals, not to mention the country’s diamonds.
The hypocrisy isn’t lost on Seretse or Ruth. The rangy, commanding Pike, whose Oscar-nominated turn in Gone Girl was brilliantly cunning, seems to physically shrink as Ruth is thrust into the unfamiliar sights and deprivations of her husband’s tribal home. And the truce she fosters with the women in Seretse’s family is hard-won. Oyelowo, himself descended from a royal line in Nigeria, is powerfully moving as his born leader delivers a speech to his tribe, insisting that the skin color of the woman he loves has no bearing on his on ability to lead, Against his uncle’s wishes, he demands a democratic vote. It’s a rousing moment.
Still, a happy ending is a long time coming. Both Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) of the Foreign Office and district commissioner Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton) are hellbent on keeping this couple apart. Sending Seretse off to London on a pretext, they conspire to exile him there while keeping Ruth and their children in Africa – a divide-and-conquer gambit. Of course, the facts show that Seretse and Ruth would unite and endure. “I didn’t marry you for your looks,” Seretse teases his wife. “Liar,” she quips.
It’s the blend of history and palpable humanity in Asante’s film that keeps us enthralled. Seretse renounced his royal title and went on to become the first president of the independent state of Botswana, while Ruth worked tirelessly for her adopted country. But A United Kingdom stays rigorously attuned to the couple’s formative years, catching Seretse and Ruth in the act of inventing themselves and carving out their place in the world. It would be comforting to say that white betrayal is no longer a part of global politics. The headlines say otherwise. And Oyelowo, in a virtuoso performance, shows us the real-life figure – not as a bloodless idea, but as a morally responsible human being, done in a way that seems both timely and timeless. It’s a tender love story that never goes soft on its provocations. It’s a defiant cry from the heart.