Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Royal Wedding

A United Kingdom
(UK/USA, 110 min.)
Dir. Amma Asante, Writ. Guy Hibbert
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Lady Edith
David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom.
Photo by Stanislav Honzik, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
The newspapers call Ruth Williams “The White Queen” as they flash on the screen in A United Kingdom. These headlines don’t serve as compliments. They are slurs.

Williams, played by the ever-reliable Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Barney’s Version), is a lily-white typist working in south London in the post-World War II years. She marries the heir to the throne of Botswana (then called Bechuanaland), and the marriage is not without controversy. Her future king is Seretse Khama, played by the also ever-reliable David Oyelowo (Selma, A Most Violent Year), a Black descendant of a long line of tribal leaders. Letting the white girl receive the title of Mother Africa doesn’t sit well with the higher-ups in Seretse’s tribe, though, nor does it meet the approval of the British government, which worries that miscegenation is a flagrant thumbing of the nose to the apartheid movement in South Africa. Call their marriage Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 2: Royal Wedding.

The pair hits it off immediately when Ruth accompanies her sister to a campus dance, and Seretse bides his time to tell her about his pending throne back home in Africa. Theirs is a marriage of pure love, not politics (at first), since Ruth isn’t some crown-seeking devil from Shakespearean tragedy. Few approve of their plans to marry—not her parents, not his friends, not his sister, not his uncle currently holding the throne backing in Bechuanaland, and especially not the British government, which desperately needs to maintain white rule in Africa to regain economic footing following the war.

This story of the difficulty faced by interracial marriages is one that audiences have seen before, but director Amma Asante (Belle) and writer Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) keep things fresh by upping the political ante as A United Kingdom rolls along. The Brits commission white papers on Seretse’s legitimacy to the throne. Fears of tribal warfare arise. Seretse suspects the Yanks and the Brits are in cahoots over illegal resource extraction. Ruth buys corn flour from a white cracker and gets an icy stare. The Brits exile Seretse. Winston Churchill throws in his support and then pulls it back. There’s a lot going on in A United Kingdom, but Assante consistently avoids from melodramatic simplifications.

Instead, Assante sharpens the racial tension on either side. Perhaps the Botswanans have internalised the racism of colonialism, but the film shows a resistance to outsiders on either side of the globe. Handsome cinematography by Sam McCurdy uses the dampness of London and the warmth of Botswana to create two different worlds bathed in dark blues and glowing orange palettes, and Assante creates two contrasting atmospheres to mirror the cultural tensions that simmer throughout the story. A United Kingdom illustrates how the personal is political as the public support for the marriage ultimately becomes a bid for progress. A small act can also be a big one.

Small acts also define the performances as the two leads keep their chemistry balanced and natural. Oyelowo gets a moment to shine when Seretse addresses his community and makes his case for them to honour the marriage. In a delivery that’s just as good as his grand orations as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Oyelowo speaks from the heart as Seretse poignantly asserts his love for his wife and people alike and advises them to learn from the oppression, discrimination, and undignified behaviour with which the British subjected them for years.

While Oyelowo gets the film’s big moment, Pike is a quiet power as Ruth stays in Africa during her husband’s exile. Pike brings the subtle mannerisms that often make her character so great, like Ruth’s rehearsed royal wave that she awkwardly bobbles for the people of Botswana as she walks meekly from the car to the grocer. She’s a common fish out of water, and endearingly and sympathetically so learns to respect her outsider status and win the people’s trust. Oyelowo and Pike do their subjects justice with powerful performances that draw the audience into the love story and fuel the message of empathy and compassion at the heart of the film.

Well timed for both Black History Month and the Academy Awards, although eligible for next year’s race, A United Kingdom is a passionate and inspiring true story about seeing beyond racial prejudices. This moving take on the marriage of Khama and Williams offers a crowd-pleasing antidote to the tensions fuelled by the two previous award seasons. It’s so refreshing to see a film with a positive message and an inclusive make-up. Asante uses the accessible kiss of romance to sweep audiences off their feet with a relevant message about seeing beyond colours and races. The film reminds us to dissolve borders and treat others with compassion—a message that is just as necessary now as it was when Khama and Williams said, “I do.”

A United Kingdom opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 24