Amma Asante’s latest film A United Kingdom explores the true story of a 1940s relationship between the prince of Botswana and a London office worker, but Dr Janice McRandal delves deeper into the colonial dimensions of the romantic drama.
Drawing on the little-known and true-life romance between Sir Sereste Khama and Ruth Williams Khama, A United Kingdom is a beautifully shot and gently paced film that will please and inspire many viewers.
Telling a version of the mixed race relationship between the Prince of Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana) and a London office worker in a time of cultural apartheid creates many narrative opportunities: a romance fitting of the zeitgeist, corrupt diplomats and governmental cover-ups, and even coerced exile—each framed within the nexus of personal-is-always-political, and vice versa.
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike both deliver patient and complex portrayals of Sereste and Ruth, and there are more than a few moments of delightfully fresh and unassuming humour in their performances.
Of course, this is not to suggest that the film is without its problems. The re-telling of this story is animated by a rather large and un-interrogated assumption about the direction of history: colonial powers are diminishing, and nation state independence has liberated and will continue to liberate invaded lands.
As the story unfolds, Sir Sereste Khama must defend his people against new frontiers of colonial oppression: the diplomatic exigencies of the UK and South Africa relationship and the looming Bechuanaland mining boom that will further exploit Africa.
It’s a complicated history that is told much too simply, and the narrative trades too comfortably on the neo-liberal assumption that democratic independence and full participation in capitalism somehow “frees” the oppressed.
The closing scene of the film betrays this assumption quite powerfully. I am not sure if this is a final failure of the film.
Another interpretation of the film might find in it the complexity and difficulty of post-colonial realities and the struggle for freedom.
The problem, though, is the notion of freedom that is imported into the movie.
Freedom itself becomes a further and perhaps more pernicious (because hidden) site of colonial power: the only freedom imaginable is the freedom of autonomy and capital, the kind of freedom that western powers have been exporting for centuries.
Even if unintentionally, the film enacts its own form of colonial narrative, and this, too, provides its own critical insight.
Dr Janice McRandal
A United Kingdom
Director: Amma Asante
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike
A United Kingdom opens at selected Queensland cinemas on 26 December.