As in director Amma Asante’s previous film, Belle, A United Kingdom uses romantic drama to account for the legacy of racism in Great Britain. The film opens in London in 1947, where one night a young Englishwoman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), goes with her missionary sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael), to a party populated by African exchange students. There she meets and promptly falls for Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who confesses to be the next in line to rule the people of Bechuanaland in modern-day Botswana. With Seretse due to return home and lead his people, he hastily proposes to Ruth, who accepts just as quickly.
Sadly, their union meets powerful resistance. Ruth’s humble, middle-class parents react with shock and disgust, but more surprising is the equally fierce pushback by Seretse’s people. In Bechuanaland, Ruth is greeted with outright disdain, especially by the women in her husband’s family, who point out that the queen of their tribe is a maternal role to be held by those who know and love the people. Their arguments don’t stem from mere prejudice, but the justifiable sense that the British, who already control the land in everything but formality, have found yet another way to take something of theirs.
Not that the British government is any happier about the arrangement: Seretse and Ruth must constantly deal with the machinations of territorial representatives—like the cruelly officious Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and the simpering but no less manipulative Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton)—who will do anything to annul the marriage and Seretse’s leadership in order to satisfy South Africa, then in the process of implementing apartheid.
The political angle of the attacks, in lieu of the physical violence that hangs over most period racial drama, allows for a more direct focus on the systems of racism that struggled to adapt to postwar moral reckoning. Rather than own up to prejudice, for example, both conservative and labor parties justify their harassment of Seretse and Ruth by claiming that South Africa must be appeased at all costs to provide an anti-communist presence in the region.
This broader sociopolitical overview is balanced by the intimate attention paid to the leads, who turn in performances of great vulnerability, as when an exiled Seretse must “meet” his newborn child only by listening to her over a long-distance call, struggling to keep his voice from cracking from the joy of being a father and the agony of being separated from his family. The care that went into these minute observations, as well as the intelligence of the macro view of institutionalized inequality, elevates the film above the mawkishness or dreary didacticism that characterize too many of its peers.