Review ‘A United Kingdom’ – Prestige and Political

The historical romantic movie ‘A United Kingdom’ had the prestigious honor of opening the 60th BFI London Film Festival and was broadcast to cinemas across the UK. It is the second movie in a row to be directed by a woman opening the festival.

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is chief of the people in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) – living and studying in London. His uncle (Vusi Kunene), who had been ruling as Seretse’s regent, orders the chief back to his homeland to accept his position. Unfortunately, Seretse has fallen in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) – a white British woman from a lower middle-class background – and their love affair and subsequent marriage has ramifications with life in Bechuanaland, also the British Empire and the balance of power in Southern Africa.


‘A United Kingdom’ was a passion project for David Oyelowo who produced the movie as well starring in it. Oyelowo worked on the movie for six years, and he was the one who recruited Pike and director Amma Asante. The story of Seretse and Ruth is like the story of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson and the abduction crisis – without the questionable political briefs.

The movie was based on a book by Susan Williams and adapted by Guy Hibbert, who has primarily worked as a TV writer – his credits include two Northern Irish dramas Omagh and Five Minutes of Heaven and he won praise for his political war thriller Eye in the Sky early this year. Hibbert tried to fit as much of the history as possible into the movie and as Asante stated when she was interviewed on the red carpet, that it was a challenge to achieve this. This is admirable as the movie tries to show all facets of time, the racism that Seretse suffers plus Ruth getting ostracized by other white people because she is in a relationship with a black man, the geo-political situation involving South Africa and the internal troubles in Bechuanaland. However, because Hibbert and Asante tried to be as comprehensive as possible in the two-hour running time it makes the movie bitty – the editor had produced a snapshot of events to give the audience a broad picture of events.


As a romance ‘A United Kingdom’ was whirlwind – Ruth and Seretse quickly bond over their love for jazz and dancing. They are married and in Africa within the first 20 minutes and this is when the movie turns into a political drama. First Seretse has to battle his uncle and his people to keep his throne before battling the British. Seretse and Ruth are smart and savvy people, but it is just the two of them having to fight the full force of the British state – they do get out maneuvered. It shows that they are fallible, making them more relatable. On the wider front, the movie does an excellent job showing the context of the situation and the period – like post-war Britain being broke, India gaining independence, the South African government formally introducing Apartheid and the idea of an African chief marrying a white woman – which would be seen as a provocation and also showing of the exploration for minerals – which could change the fortunes of the nation.

The British response could be best described as the ‘Empire Strikes Back.’ This is personified by Jack Davenport’s character Alistair Canning, a fictionalized character, who was the British representative in Southern Africa who uses his power to assert direct rule over the nation to return ‘order’ to Bechuanaland. As the movie states, Bechuanaland needs the British to protect them from an advancing South Africa. When the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee appears in one scene, he states the political situation – that Britain needs South Africa for its gold and uranium with South Africa also acting as an ally against communism.


In real life, Seretse and Ruth were 26 and 24 in 1947, Oyelowo and Pike are both over 10 years older than their characters. Despite the big age difference, it is easy to overlook because the actors are wonderful together, sharing interests and have a warmth when with each other, whether they are dancing, playing pool or simply relaxing in the sun. Despite Seretse being from an elite family, he was a Democrat – someone who listens to the will of his people, convincing them he is worthy enough to serve his people and wants to introduce formal democracy. One of his big moments is an impassioned speech to a gathering of the people with tears running down Seretse’s face – snippets of this speech were used in the trailers. The story in ‘A United Kingdom’ bares some similarities to the film adaptation of Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom – both movies focus on an important figure in African history and use the relationships between the central characters and both men are from similar backgrounds. They even have some similar techniques to show the background political situation, “Mandela” uses achieve news footage while ‘A United Kingdom’ uses newspaper highlights from the time.

Ruth’s storyline revolves around her settling into Bechuanaland and Pike had a charming presence providing so moments of humor – very different from her role in Gone Girl. However besides from Seretse’s females saying that they won’t accept her – Ruth’s struggles are resolved too quickly. Her biggest moment in Africa was when the white settlers rejected her. Asante and cinematography Sam McCurdy set out to visually differentiate London and Bechuanaland. London is made out to be gray and lifeless while Bechuanaland is bright and vibrant – essentially making Africa out to be a paradise.

‘A United Kingdom’ is a movie that should appeal to history and politics enthusiasts – being a wide-ranging look at the personal and political life of Seretse Khama and the British Empire straight after the Second World War. It was a much better opening to the London Film Festival then ‘Suffragette’ was last year.

Kieran Freemantle
Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.