Even in today’s culture of intense social upheaval and divisive hot-button issues, there are still people who stubbornly define themselves as apolitical, avoiding the indignity of having to choose a side by opting out of the process altogether. Such a stance ignores the fact that, as far as our heads may be buried in the sand, we inevitably exist within a larger sociopolitical super-structure, with all aspects of our lives influenced by governmental policies enacted around us. As she proves with A United Kingdom, perhaps no current filmmaker is better than Amma Asante at conveying the implicit circumstances of this reality, particularly in doing so within the highly-standardized boundaries of prestige picture product. Beautiful on the surface and rigorous at its core, the film intertwines classic melodrama with crackling rhetorical inquiry, couching a classic story of forbidden passion within a highly specific—yet eminently relatable—political context.

That context involves the whirlwind romance between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a university student who falls in love with a young office clerk named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), after the two meet at a church social. Despite their instant chemistry and smooth courtship, the pair face a few imminent problems, not least among them that Khama is both a black man in early 1950s England and the prince regnant of a governing African chieftainship operating under British protectorate status. This sounds like a fairytale setup, one in which the greatest hurdles will involve racial intolerance and a rigid social structure, her working-class origins rejected by his royal family, his non-English origins by hers. A United Kingdom manages to both fulfill the formulaic promise of this conflict while growing into something much deeper, as the couple confronts one problem after another, the narrative steadily developing from one of emotional resilience to a wider geopolitical chess match.

The film moves from a familiar tale of taboo love to a real-life fable of personal and national liberation, one in which the process of decolonization is illustrated on parallel fronts. Telling this story from the directorial perspective of a London-born, Ghanaian-descended woman, Asante explores all sides of each entanglement and conflict, offering coherent political and cultural reasoning for the motivation of every adversary. The hard-fought struggle by which Ruth and Seretse gain the right to love freely thus encompasses the influence of sinister South African apartheidists, proudly stubborn relatives, sniveling imperial functionaries, American mining companies, amoral journalists and opportunistic politicians, some of whom switch from foes to friends as the couple gradually turns the tide in their favor.

Thanks in part to a solid screenplay from Guy Hibbert, adapted from a non-fiction account by Susan Williams, this complex web of conflicts is constructed with far more precision than that of Asante’s 2013 film Belle, where the interracial romance felt tacked on to the central narrative. Contrasting the fictionalized true-life tale of a high-born British woman of mixed-race background against the contemporary furor around the 1781 Zong incident, that film extrapolated how the specific indignities of second-class citizenhood stemmed from larger societal trends, specifically the mass murder of 133 slaves tossed into the ocean as an insurance write-off. In its adaptation of historical drama into literate melodrama with a rigid rhetorical spine, A United Kingdom carries off a similar process far more adroitly, connecting each subsidiary conflict to its primary love story without any loose ends.

The filmmaking may not always be as sumptuous as that of the period Hollywood spectacles from which the movie draws inspiration, but the low-key approach also doesn’t distract from the riveting gamesmanship at the story’s center. Some choices do stand out, such as the utilization of drone shots, sweeping over the desert and savannah as a means of asserting the grandeur of these locales, which also instills such shots with a creepy, surveillance-oriented edge. This combination of the magisterial and the eerie is fitting for a film that exists simultaneously on a series of temporal planes, commenting simultaneously on Africa’s often forgotten royal and tribal histories, its colonialism-addled recent past, troubled present and hopeful future, keeping in mind how external forces have contributed to all these situations. In doing so, the respect it grants black and female characters and the care it takes in clarifying native customs and traditions unfortunately feel revolutionary in themselves. But A United Kingdom’s best quality remains its ability to interweave domestic conflict within an expansive, globally-focused framework, serving as a useful reminder of how personal struggles always exist within the context of a broader political climate.

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