There's more than one fractured monarchy in A United Kingdom, a period saga of love, race and colonial politics set in both post-World War II Britain and a tiny African tribal nation then-named Bechuanaland. Some of this really happened: In 1947 the African country's heir apparent, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and white office worker Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) cross paths at a missionary dance in drab, foggy post-War London. In the film, their eyes lock across a crowded room; they bond over a mutual love of jazz; that's it, they're hooked for life.
Not having read Susan Williams' Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation, on which the film is based, I can't be sure that love really bloomed for the couple with that well-worn ocular lock. But their determination to marry and return to rule his nation triggered a diplomatic row, and, conceivably, paved the way for the independence of more African countries from British rule. That's an extraordinary story, but first we must wade through a romance between lovers without flaw, and drowning in syrup and cliché. Not what you'd expect from Amma Assante, the British daughter of Ghanaian immigrants and director of the wise and charming Belle (2013), with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a mixed-race Englishwoman caught up in an 18th-century battle to end slavery.
A United Kingdom walks us dutifully through the couple's early travails in England, where racist street thugs and job loss turn out to be mere warm-ups for the combined wrath of Ruth's hidebound father (Nicholas Lyndhurst), the Archbishop of Canterbury and, more crucially, Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a nasty piece of British government work who's in charge of finessing uppity colonials seeking independence from their imperial masters. Why would all these poobahs care, beyond the garden-variety racism that ruled the day? Well, Seretse is up at Oxford, being groomed to take the reins of Bechuanaland (minor spoiler alert, the country is known today as Botswana) from his uncle (Vusi Kunene), an old-school regent who fondly believes the Brits have his interests at heart. What's more, there may be diamonds.
Ruth and Seretse marry anyway, and I wish the movie's flatly conventional early introduction to their union would let in more light (as Jeff Nichols' wonderfully rich Loving did last year) about who these people are and what — Courage? Curiosity? Rebellion? — might drive a sheltered young white woman to commit to a union she and her lover know will bring them only trouble. And vice versa. Pike and Oyelowo (a co-producer on the film whose wife, Jessica Oyelowo, plays Sir Alastair's wife) are fine actors who mesh well, but their characters aren't fleshed out enough separately or together to explore what kind of person might take such a risk and then persevere in the face of such adversity.
There's worse to come, but much better filmmaking and gorgeous landscape when the newlyweds move to Africa, only to confront pushback from a tribe newly awakening to its desire for freedom from Britain's imperial yoke. It's here that A United Kingdom, freer from its own yoke as a woolly tale of love triumphant, gathers steam and narrative drive. Guy Hibbert's screenplay, stilted and awkward in early scenes, grows vigorous and sharp as the movie follows the couple's five-year separation. Forced into exile with his wife stranded in Africa, Seretse becomes a potential pawn in a deadly political game that involves further backroom finagling from the Brits in cahoots with the South African government, which is busy installing apartheid while sniffing out the potential of neighboring mineral-rich tribal lands.
There's a decent thriller here, and with or without dramatic heightening, A United Kingdom — whose title may legitimately be read as sardonic or sentimental — is a remarkable tale of chicanery and serial betrayal in which, by the way, Britain's most famous prime minister plays a shockingly inglorious (offscreen) role, while a young Labour politician named Anthony Wedgwood Benn steps in to help. Sure, this resolutely populist movie takes liberties with personal history: Obituaries state that Ruth, the daughter of an army captain, was far from the humble lower-middle class girl we see marrying upward. And once settled in Africa, she became more a colonial lady than the film's down-with-the-people Ruth, sweating through the days onscreen with local tribeswomen. Still, this enormously satisfying story honors the smiling, courageous couple we see in a photo behind the closing credits.