Like Hidden Figures before it, the post-World War II historical drama A United Kingdom is a great and worthy story, told poorly.
The real-life account of the marriage between Londoner Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the ruler of Beuchanaland (now Botswana), is an incredible story about an interracial relationship with world-changing political implications. Unfortunately, the film does its subjects little credit, suffering from directing and writing choices that keep it from achieving its potential.
In the film, Williams meets Khama at a London dance she’s attending with her sister Muriel. The two immediately connect, and begin seeing each other, dealing with plenty of racism and misunderstanding in the process. But issues in England pale in comparison to the international obstacles presented when the couple decide to marry. Both the British government and the apartheid-upholding South African government oppose the marriage, and work to keep the two apart. Beyond their government’s restrictions, Khama also has to work to convince his people to accept Williams, a white woman, as his wife and their co-leader.
A United Kingdom has a lot of ground to cover time-wise, following Williams and Khama from their courtship through their wedding and the first years of their marriage, several of which were spent apart due to a prolonged separation enforced by the British government. Covering a long span of time like this is a challenge for any filmmaking team, and it’s one that director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert aren’t up to taking on here.
The problem lies not in the performances — Oyelowo and Pike are great, outshining the material both as a pair and individually — but the clumsy writing and editing of the film. Simply put, A United Kingdom is a movie that suffers from time management issues. Early scenes are abruptly edited, sometimes cutting right in the middle of a conversation in order to keep things moving. When we finally arrive at the dramatic bulk of the story, with a pregnant Williams holding down the fort in Beuchanaland while Khama is stuck in a forced exile in England, the film seems to slow to a crawl.
The supporting characters — whether helping Williams and Khama or standing in their way — are thinly-drawn, even cartoonish in the case of British government officials. With the exception of Oyelowo and Pike, who stay well matched and complex throughout the film, most of the characters’ opinions and motivations can be summed up in one or two words, giving little color to their interactions with the leads, or context to why they’re behaving the way they do.
That’s a real shame, because the film’s themes of racial divides and reconciliation are incredibly important, and the true story behind it is a great example of those ideals overcoming forces of racism, entitlement, and hatred. The world needs films like A United Kingdom to be reminded that with love, patience, and faith, incredible things are possible. But it’s not enough to just have these stories — they have to be memorable, engaging, and told well. That takes a level of care and patience that just isn’t present here.