Just two years after his vivid and powerful portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, David Oyelowo is at it again, turning in a subdued, pitch-perfect performance as a global civil rights leader. In A United Kingdom, Oyelowo tackles the real-life story of Seretse Khama, the king-to-be of the south African country of Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
In 1947, while studying in London before a planned return home to lead his country, he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman with no idea of his standing. To say their love and subsequent marriage upset the apple cart is a wild understatement. It was nothing short of a global upheaval that had major ramifications on two continents and eventually led to Botswana’s independence from the British Empire.
As with 2016’s understated Loving, though, A United Kingdom is a story first and foremost about love, and in Pike and Oyelowo’s capable hands, the film soars as a moving tribute to their real-life counterparts and what they endured to keep that love strong.
Director Amma Asante (Belle) never loses sight of that fact either, deftly balancing the political fallout with the personal toll. In the wake of Khama and Williams’ marriage, her father disowned her, but for him, it was a matter of his entire country hanging in the balance. England was, at the time, knee-deep in the turmoil in South Africa, which was in the process of introducing Apartheid. National identities, civil rights, and sovereignty hung in the balance.
Even after being exiled by the British government for five years, Khama never wavered in either his devotion to his country or to his wife. Oyelowo is given plenty of moments to show us that devotion, as he delivers passionate, inspired speeches that helped sway his own country and then, later, the government of England. But A United Kingdom’s better moments come when the two leads are alone with each other during the film’s quieter times, falling in love and displaying their unwavering commitment.
Pike and Oyelowo share a genuine chemistry, and with the help of a solid screenplay from Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky), who adapted the book by Susan WIlliams, they propel the film forward and make it very easy for the audience to quickly get immersed in the story. The supporting cast is also excellent, including Jack Davenport as Alistair Canning, the (fictional) conniving British government representative in Africa; Tom Felton, almost unrecognizable from his days as Harry Potter nemesis Draco Malfoy, playing Bechuanaland’s district commissioner, and Terry Pheto as Khama’s younger sister, who slowly warms to Ruth’s presence. Oyelowo’s real-life wife Jessica also does notable work as Canning’s wife Lily.
Ultimately, this is a powerful and uplifting story that few people have ever heard but one that definitely deserves its place in history. And A United Kingdom more than does it justice.