Director Amma Asante broke through to some degree with Belle, a period piece that examined race relations and interracial relationships in Great Britain. Belle was a success, due to the combination of Asante’s work and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s magnetic performance, so for her first work since then, she doubles down: A United Kingdom is a (different) period piece that also examines race relations and interracial relationships, this time buoyed by the dual starring powers of David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (who both had breakout performances the same year as Asante’s Belle with Selma and Gone Girl, respectively).
Ruth Williams (Pike) is a Londoner who works in an office by day. Occasionally, she joins her sister Muriel (Laura Carmichael) at local dances during the evening. One night, she meets Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) at one of these dances. Following a first date that goes well, she learns that Khama is a prince, and he’s set to return to Bechuanaland (now Botswana) soon to assume rule of his tribe. The two feel a connection they can’t resist, though, and they eventually get married – which does not go over well for the British government or that of Bechuanaland’s neighbor, the apartheid-era South Africa.
I’ll admit up front that I was sold on the potential for this movie going in: Belle made my Top 20 for 2014, while Gone Girl and Selma ranked #1 and #2 for the year. Asante, Pike and Oyelowo are all people I’m keeping my eye on, and teaming them up showed promise. While A United Kingdom doesn’t quite match any of those films, there’s plenty to like about it. Chiefly, the chemistry between Oyelowo and Pike is palpable. These two seem drawn to each other like magnets, and it’s the type of chemistry that sells the lighter points of their courtship as well as the darker times that follow when governments try to pull them apart.
What keeps the film from really succeeding, though, is a necessary plot point that keeps the characters apart from each other for an extended period of time, as the film shifts from being a romance to more of a procedural. The events surrounding this are infuriating, and there’s plenty of interesting material to dig into (particularly the film’s use of Winston Churchill, which may be one of the rare occasions where he’s viewed as something other than a hero). The figures in the British government attacking the couple are appropriately villainous, and casting both Jack Davenport and Tom Felton in these roles certainly doesn’t hurt. But the best material is when Oyelowo and Pike are together, and based on the information that comes up before the credits, there’s plenty of material from the real story that would still make for an interesting film while keeping the two together.
There are two things that A United Kingdom ultimately offers: a pair of great performances, and a look at a historical event that most audiences might not be aware happened. On the former, the film certainly succeeds. On the latter, the film offers a good look, but leaves a bit of desire for more. I’m glad to see the story brought to light, but if the film had found a way to dig a little deeper, it could have elevated this film’s potential.