They meet in England at a celebration of missionaries. He is an African tribal prince named Seretse Khama who is studying in England. She is a London office worker named Ruth Williams.
It is 1947.
They spot each other across a crowded room. The most ancient of magnets draws them together to talk. She admits, over the sound of the band, that she loves jazz but is not particularly impressed with the way her countrymen play it. Their dancing together at the event is not exactly joyous but then neither is the music.
He sends her a 78-RPM record of Louis Armstrong singing "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)." It's all over but the shouting. Soon they're in a club with better music jitterbugging happily and you know where that will lead. African American music wins again. In any room, it stands a very good chance of finding those who belong together.
In profile, "A United Kingdom" couldn't look more charismatic. When you come a little closer? Not so much.
It's not the actors' fault.
It's loosely based on a real story of young people who met in 1947 and have become largely lost to history since--at least on this side of the Atlantic. They fell in love across the era's racial barriers and wound up causing an international incident.
The young people are played by David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King in "Selma" and Rosamund Pike who was the "Gone Girl." These are magnetic performers in our movies these days.
Give him anything close to a rousing speech and Oyelowo can nail it to your conscience as few others can. Pike is beautiful and haunting. Both her presence and her acting talent can take over a screen.
If you know contemporary movies, you want to see them fall in love, make trouble for stuffed shirts, and overcome obstacles--whatever plot this adaptation from late-'40s history throws at them.
Which, unfortunately, is a lot more about African politics at the time than you bargained for. In brief, Seretse's native Bechuanaland--later to be called Botswana--is next door to uranium-rich South Africa which is about to adopt apartheid. The Brits want the uranium and Bechuanaland is a British "protectorate." The Brits, therefore, want to stay on the right side of racially oppressive South Africa. Royal intermarriage won't help.
I have just explained what's going on to you more simply than "A United Kingdom" ever does. Undoubtedly, that means I have oversimplified everything but the for the sake of a movie, I'm not sure that's a bad idea.
Especially after seeing this. What you get onscreen is a lot of politics you weren't expecting from a movie about interracial love starring two fiercely magnetic movie presences.
It makes sense that the story became a tabloid cause celebre in Britain where, let's remember, they'd just had a British king abdicate because he fell in love with a divorcee. (Never mind that the future Duke of Windsor was friendly to the Nazis. Love is blind. So are quite a few dimwit royals.)
Mostly, the politics we're watching keep the couple apart--he in England, his wife in Bechuanaland where she has their baby. Mostly they reiterate the point about how sleazy, condescending and insufferable British colonial meddling can be.
This is not a point that needs as much reiteration as it gets in "A United Kingdom."
You may find that the movie's view of Seretse's tribe back home is depressingly generic and almost as condescending as those in charge of the British "protectorate." In one scene, the tribal women, impressed by the new bride's hard work, gather around her digs and sing a song in tribute to her. We are impressed by their conversion to her cause but if you think anything shows us how it happened, forget it. That wouldn't fit in a movie whose script, no doubt, simply identified them as "tribal women."
We're told that Winston Churchill changed his mind about the controversial interracial couple. He was for them when expedient, against them when not. Don't ask for more details. This movie's not interested even if you and I might be. (My feeling is this: if you're going to drop Sir Winston's name into a movie, you'd bloody well better have a good reason for it.)
Symbolizing British colonial condescension and general awfulness is actor Jack Davenport, the son of the great British character actor Nigel Davenport and a perfect conveyance of British colonial patronizing.
He too, along with Pike and Oyelowo, deserved a far better movie than this is, for all its visually beautiful scenes in Africa.
The three of them are worth seeing in a movie, along with a plot driven by history.
You pay a price though, for seeing all that in a movie about history you didn't know--an insistence on telling you in tedious detail about a lot of stuff you already did.
"A United Kingdom"
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport and Tom Felton
Director: Amma Asante
Running time: 111 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for language, racial epithets, suggestions of sex.
The lowdown: In 1947, an African tribal prince and a young London office worker fall in love and become an international incident.