2017-03-16 / On the Town

Stakes for high for true-life interracial couple

MOVIE REVIEW /// ’A United Kingdom’
The Movie Nut
Robert Gibbons

This is an engaging and inspiring film without violence, special effects, sex, nudity or four-letter words. Who knew they still made movies like that?

The story is one of real people and true events; the interracial couple at the heart of “A United Kingdom” have parallels to Richard and Mildred Loving in last year’s “Loving.” In both films, prejudice shows its ugliness, the government gets involved and exile is offered as a solution.

But here, the stakes are higher: The rule of an African protectorate— and the gold standard of the British currency—hang in the balance.

We begin in London in 1947. Seretse (Oyelowo) is a law student who is called home to Bechuanaland by his uncle (Vusi Kunene), who is his guardian and acting king. It’s time for the tribe to pick a wife for Seretse and for him to ascend to the throne.

But Seretse’s heart has other plans. At a missionary dance, he—a black man—falls in love with Ruth ( Pike)— a white woman. A clerk whose family disowns her when she and Seretse marry, Ruth is not discouraged.

“We’ll take it moment by moment,” she tells her new husband, “together.”

Their problems worsen exponentially when they return to Seretse’s homeland. It’s the third-poorest country in Africa, wracked by malaria and drought. He tries to make a difference and Ruth works to be accepted.

The tribe wants him but not her.

Seretse’s uncle reminds him, “Your first duty is to your people.” His sister Naledi (Pheto) begs Ruth, “Let him go; we need him more.” Seretse and Ruth refuse to give up or give in.

When the British government calls the couple back to London to “work things out,” Seretse smells a trap and makes a difficult decision.

“ We’ve misjudged this, haven’t we?” Ruth asks him.

Before things are set right, the politics and fears of South Africa and the mineral rights of Bechuanaland come into play, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Winston Churchill offer their opinions, and two government agents—Canning (Jack Davenport) and his flunky, Lancaster (Tom Felton)—demonstrate how the game of duplicity is played.

This is a love story that sparked a feud lasting more than a decade. But in the end, Seretse and Ruth changed the destitute Bechuanaland into the democracy of Botswana, today a successful African republic.

Oyelowo has the range and diversity of experience to make Seretse a fully formed, admirable character. He’s strong and sensitive, confident and compassionate, persistent yet patient. He shows the regal bearing and oratory power of someone who is “to the manor born” but the humanity and humility of one willing to be a “man of his people.”

By watching how he cares for his wife, we can understand how he would care for his nation.

Pike brings a sense of youthful excitement and vulnerability to the role of Ruth; she is the audience surrogate. It’s through her wide-open eyes and trusting heart that we’re immersed in this grand adventure. She makes her love for Seretse joyful, fearless, real.

Like Alicia Vikander did for “The Danish Girl,” she turns this drama into a touching and tender love story. Bring Kleenex.

The movie is well cast and well-written, the roles all well played. Oyelowo and Pike have such chemistry, we wish they were together for more of the movie and that the ending, where they make the greatest difference, came with more explanation.

But this is mature work by a director tackling only her second major movie (after “Belle”). Asante shows a confident ability to tell a personal story on a world stage, balancing the affairs of a country with the love story of a man and his wife.

Although some ground is covered too quickly and some characters are developed only superficially, humor emerges naturally from Asante’s storytelling, and she tucks educational historical tidbits seamlessly into the dialogue.

This true and little-known story is proof that sometimes you can learn a lot—just by going to the movies.

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