It’s ironic that Amma Asante keeps dipping back into history for her films since the times needed to catch up to her as a filmmaker. Shamefully, the director had to wait nearly a decade after her feature debut “A Way of Life” to surprise audiences with “Belle” two years ago, which despite its 18th century setting was a vibrant portrait of a black woman’s painful education of societal limitations in a time of slavery despite being raised by a prosperous white family, and her latest “A United Kingdom” is told with the same immediacy, brilliantly cutting through the implicit nostalgia that often accompanies filmic journeys to the past to recount a remarkable true story that is both tragic and triumphant.
As if casting Sidney Poitier and Grace Kelly in their primes, Asante sets David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, the first mixed-race couple to rule over Botswana in 1949, then existing as the British protectorate Bechuanaland. With either the misfortune or luck to meet at a Missionary Society Dance just as he is about to ascend to the throne in his homeland, the couple becomes instantly smitten with each other, bonding over the badness of white Englishmen attempting to play jazz at the dance. At first, he doesn’t tell her of his royal origins, but he does as soon as he realizes it matters about as much to her as the color of his skin, and soon the daughter of a salesman is being whisked off to South Africa, unaware of apartheid or the furor that awaits her arrival from both his family and local villagers and the British government officials, primarily Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) who seeks to discredit Khama to rule over the land himself.
While a sophisticated consideration of race and geopolitical machinations that previously was all too often reduced to subtext is quite evident, there’s also a quite pleasing old-fashioned quality to “A United Kingdom” where spinning newspapers mark time passing with major events and a directness of emotion that along with the richness of the color palette reminds of Douglas Sirk. There isn’t a shred of irony here, but a sly sense of subversion as Assante places not only a little-known piece of history, but an interracial romance at that, in the bold, proud and dignified tradition British historical narratives, each frame alternately sturdy and vibrant as it leans on structural and stylistic touches you’ve likely seen but never feeling this fresh.
A no-nonsense attitude drives both the Khamas and the story itself — which covers their whirlwind courtship, Sertese’s exile to England after his disapproving uncle (Vusi Kunene) initiates his banishment just after Ruth becomes pregnant with their first child and his canny gamesmanship to emerge again as Botswana’s first democratically elected president — keeping up an energy that proves as infectious as the couple’s unflagging optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. While an obligatory picture of the real-life couple appears shortly before the end credits, barely physically resembling the one played by Oyelowo and Pike, there’s no question that they’ve been brought back to life with a majesty only achievable in film. “A United Kingdom” never feels anything less than epic, but in getting the intimate give-and-take of the Khamas’ relationship at its core just right, Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert manage to make a sweeping drama that’s both deeply touching and transcendent.
“A United Kingdom” will be released in the U.S. on February 17th. It will play at the London Film Festival on October 6th at 11:30 pm at the Odeon Leichester Square and October 11th at the Curzon Mayfair Cinema at 9 pm.