9 December 2016 | JamesHitchcock
Interesting Look at a Historical Romance
"A United Kingdom" is based on the true-life relationship between Sir Seretse Khama, an African chieftain from what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and a white British woman, Ruth Williams. The film implies that he was the King of Bechuanaland, but in fact no single individual ever held this position; Khama was the ruler of the Bangwatho, one of a number of tribes making up the Tswana nation, the largest ethnic group in the country. In Botswana, as Bechuanaland is now known, Khama and Ruth are today revered figures, as he was the leader of the country's independence movement and its first President when independence was achieved in 1966; unlike most other former colonies in Africa Botswana has remained a democracy ever since, and their son is the current President.
Khama's marriage to Ruth Williams (they met while he was studying in London in 1948) was highly controversial at the time. Many of Khama's own people, led by his uncle, refused to accept Ruth as their Queen. The South African government, which was just starting to introduce its policy of apartheid, objected furiously to the idea of a high-profile black leader in a neighbouring country marrying a white woman. Clement Attlee's Labour government, anxious to placate the South Africans who were threatening to leave the Commonwealth, intervened, exiling Khama from Bechuanaland and forbidding him to return. Winston Churchill, at the time leader of the Opposition, initially made sympathetic noises, but after the Conservatives were returned to power in 1951 he took an even harder line than Attlee. The situation was complicated by the discovery of diamonds in the territory; the British government, using the rift between Khama and his uncle as a pretext, threatened to revoke Bechuanaland's status as a Protectorate and declare it a Crown Colony. (The real reason was that in a Protectorate mineral rights belonged to the local people, whereas in a colony they belonged to the colonial power). One of Khama's few British allies was the Labour MP Tony Benn.
The action switches between an austere, drab post-war Britain and a bright sunlit Africa. The recreation of historical detail is well done and both the leading actors, David Oyelowo as Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth, are excellent. The film is an interesting look at a historical romance which made the headlines at the time but which today is largely forgotten, at least in Britain. 7/10
Some goofs. We hear a radio broadcast on the eve of Indian independence in 1947 telling us that Indians would go to bed "subjects of the Queen". Britain still had a King, George VI, in 1947. We are told that Queen Victoria made Bechuanaland a Protectorate to protect its people from "racist South Africa", but the Protectorate was created in 1885, twenty-five years before South Africa came into existence as a single nation. (In 1885 it was still a patchwork of British colonies and Boer republics). Prime Minister Attlee claims that the Presidents of South Africa, South-West Africa and the two Rhodesias were all opposed to Khama's marriage to Ruth. During Attlee's term of office (1945-51) none of these territories had a President.