This is my review of A United Kingdom [DVD].
This heart-warming story of the power of love and clear-sighted integrity in the face of prejudice and ill-judged political expediency is worth reviving at a time when many people are too young to remember the true events on which it is based.
When London office worker Ruth Williams fell in love with a black African student who shared her love of dancing to jazz music, she did not realise what problems would be posed by his role as future King of Bechuanaland, a British Protectorate on the borders of South Africa, which was in the process of developing apartheid.
The film is effective in showing the flowering of a romance based on deep-rooted love and the couple’s shifting emotions of shock, despair, anger and defiance as the two find themselves caught between racism and hostility in both white and black communities resistant to change. It conveys a strong sense of place in foggy post-war London and the semi-arid African plains. We see how Ruth gradually begins to forge relationships with the local people, who are perhaps a little too good – gentle and law-abiding – to be true.
The drama is less successful in charting a coherent course through the political shenanigans, as entertaining but stereotyped British diplomats try to cajole, bully and trick the pair into giving up a marriage thought likely to stir up local unrest, or worse still threaten UK access to South Africa’s supplies of diamonds and uranium. Since in real life the couple were exiled from Bechuanaland for several years, perhaps the filmmakers feared the narrative would lose pace unless events were concertinaed somewhat. The weakest scenes are those involving poor look-alikes for British ministers gabbling lines at each other to explain complex geo-politics to the audience, on a set which looks nothing like the House of Commons, as intended.
Such a fascinating story does not need much tinkering to hold our interest. If anything, the film underplays Seretse Kharma’s achievement in developing an independent, much more prosperous and relatively free from corruption African country, renamed Botswana, one of the tragic continent’s few success stories.
The film inspired me to familiarise myself with the details of the original true story, is a salutary reminder of the extent to which attitudes have changed over the past sixty years, and reminds one of the overall benefits of a tolerant, open-minded society – also of the important link between individual freedom and democracy of which we may be in danger of losing sight.