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United Kingdom, AUnited Kingdom 2016
Directed by Amma Asante
Running time 105 minutes
Synopsis: The true story of SeretseKhama (David Oyelowo), a Prince of Bechuanaland (now modern day Botswana) who in 1947 after graduating from an English university causes an international scandal when he meets and falls in love with office worker Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white British woman. At the behest of Khama’s Uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) and eager not to be at odds with neighbouring South Africa’s newly instituted policy of Apartheid, the British government represented by Lord Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) does everything in its power to prevent their marriage and, failing that, to ensure that Khama is never able to assume the Bechuanaland throne whilst in a mixed-race marriage. But the power of the love between Seretse and Ruth is stronger than anyone anticipates.
This film falls squarely into the ‘how-come-this-tale-has-never-been-told-before’ category. It’s a fascinating story that captures a moment in time when racism was far more accepted in the world and where those who flaunted the conventions of segregation (or in its most institutionalised form, Apartheid) did so at their own risk. What makes this story all the more intriguing is that it exposes the extent to which a powerful nation (which the UK was back then) would exploit its protectorate role in a smaller country like Bechuanaland in order to placate a more powerful country like South Africa. And when the issue of mineral rights and the interests of the big international mining companies come into it, the stakes feel like they are set to be raised even higher.
But simply having a fascinating story to tell doesn’t automatically make for a good movie and director Asante (Belle, 2013) along with screenwriter Guy Hibbert (last year’s Eye in the Sky) shy away from the opportunity to really call the British Empire to account by devoting as much, if not more, attention to the love story as they do to its political importance. The result feels like a soft version of the truth - a sweet romantic tale that undercuts the importance of the international political situation against which it is set.
Oyelowo and Pike both had successes in 2014 with starring roles in films like Ava Duvernay's Selma (him) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl (her) but here their performances, whilst endearing, seem to lack the depth of which they’re capable. Kenene as the uncle is strong and Abena Ayivor as his wife, Ella, along with Terry Pheto as Seretse’s sister Naledi both give engaging performances but the film is seriously let down by the puffed-up caricatures of British establishment as portrayed by Davenport as the villain aided and abetted by his wife Lady Lilly Canning (Jessica Oyelowo) and their man on the ground in Africa, Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton). Their depiction of the self-serving paternalistic Empire only exacerbates the way in which the politics at the heart of the story have been sidelined.
What the film does have going for it is Simon Bowles’ nice recreation of post-war London and Sam McCurdy’s very pretty photography of the stunning African landscape but for an event that should be raising the audience’s ire and could have so easily been echoing some of the creeping racism that we see in contemporary international affairs, it falls well short of the mark.
Still, if you’re looking for a nice romantic story dressed up in lovely period costumes that might reaffirm your hopes that love – true love – can overcome even the most powerful of oppositional forces and inspire a relatively powerless nation to stand up for itself, then perhaps this is the movie for you.