Ebony and Ivory

Inter–racial, or mixed, marriages are commonplace these days and we hardly bat an eyelid, but even during my lifetime it was once frowned on. A black woman with a white man, or vice versa, stuck out in society like a sore thumb. The potential of such a liaison once caused family angst and community consternation. Now imagine if it was a coloured man who was an heir to an African throne immediately after WW2, with his chosen one being a sweet English rose of lowly origins – family angst and community consternation are then magnified to the nth degree. The proposed nuptials of Serentse and Ruth caused great conniptions in the halls of power of the United Kingdom, South Africa and the former Bechuanaland, in a story bought to life on the big screen.

Now I thought I had a fair handle on the great stories of Africa’s freeing itself from colonialism, but this one, based on actual events – even if with a few made up characters – in the British Protectorate now know as Botswana, has passed me by. And it is a quiet engrossing movie that tells the tale. It’s put together by Amma Asante. Her last feature was the very competent ‘Belle’, another based-on-fact story, that time involving a black woman breaking a glass ceiling in 18th Century Britain. The issue of race relations is at each offering’s core.

Whereas the notion of apartheid was abhorrent to most Brits in the post-war period, the government was still keen to suck up to Malan and his racist cronies in Pretoria as Britain was reliant on the gold and diamonds coming out of RSA to keep the UK economy on an even keel. You don’t upset the hand that feeds you. So when the crown prince falls in love with Ruth on UK soil and they decide to marry, despite all the angst and consternation it may cause, the RSA authorities were soon pressuring their British counterparts to make sure such an affront to their pure-white values did not come to fruition. Serentse’s uncle, the caretaker of his nation’s throne and the young prince’s guardian, is similarly nonplussed and none too happy with a turn of events that flies in the face of tribal custom.

What Asante has directed in ‘United Kingdom’ is a writ by numbers affair, as she did with ‘Belle’, both, though, being entertainingly watchable. The contrast between the two locales in ‘A United Kingdom’ is one of the movie’s attractions – Old Blighty being typically rain sodden; the vast plains of Bechuanaland bathed in the golden hues of heat. But the latter land is just emerging from tribalism and Ruth, when the Prince returns to his homeland with her now his wife, finds the conditions stark, to say the least. But she’s a stoic soul, with it being clear she won’t be too long in wooing the local womenfolk into liking her for her caring ways. The wives of British officialdom are another matter. But machinations are afoot in London to bow to South African demands and plots follow to separate the couple and make their lives impossible.

There are some good turns in this from the supporting cast. I enjoyed Jack Davenport’s take as the toffy-nosed and thoroughly obnoxious British High Commissioner for Africa. And it was lovely to see Downton’s Laura Carmichael in the role of Ruth’s ever-supportive sister.

Maybe it was the PG rating, but there did not seem to me to be a great deal of chemistry between the two leads. It’s the type of role, playing Ruth, an actor of Rosamund Pike’s class could do blindfolded, with the best being said of David Oyelowo, as the heir to an African throne, is that he was reasonably okay. The movie, as a Boxing Day release, has underwhelmed in the multiplexes, but is doing quite well across the art houses; being more suited to a demographic less attracted to the whizzbangery of the blockbuster. It’s hardly an earth-shattering release, but in the midst of the usual festive season dross in it we have something quieter, something without flashiness – just a well told story presented with minimum fuss.

The movie’s trailer = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX5vI4osR50

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