Twenty years before the U.S. Supreme Court put the marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving on trial, the fate of another interracial couple made headlines around the world: Seretse Khama (portrayed with fierce empathy by David Oyelowo) came to London in 1946 to study law; Ruth Williams (a defiant Rosamund Pike) worked as a clerk. They met at a missionary dance, fell in love, and decided to wed within a year. But because Khama was heir to the tribal throne of the British protectorate Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and Williams was white at a time when England was eager to appease its South African allies in the rising wave of apartheid, their union wasn’t merely scandalous; it was a geopolitical event.
In bringing their story to the screen, director Amma Asante (Belle) faithfully follows the familiar arc of countless historical biopics before her: the noble struggle, the seemingly insurmountable setbacks, the string-swelling triumph in the last reel. But she does it all with such aesthetic grace and sincere goodwill that it’s hard not to react exactly as the script intends, heartstrung by every fresh hardship or victory. It helps, too, to have two actors so immensely appealing in the lead roles. Oyelowo and Pike hold fast to the intimate core of the pair’s connection, even as they are spurned by their homelands and subjected to humiliations large (exile, threats of annulment) and small (an official’s wife offers Ruth a cocktail while archly informing her that her new husband may help himself to a soda, because “blacks can’t drink” in the territory).
Subtlety isn’t paramount; Jack Davenport, as a government emissary, is so coolly villainous that his white-linened lap only seems to be missing a hairless cat to stroke. And the Khamas themselves are presented less as ordinary flawed humans than haloed avatars, forever bearing the torch for true love and moral rectitude. Still, it’s their quiet devotion and enduring dignity that give A United Kingdom not just a romantic center, but its soul. B+