dir: Amma Asante
Ah, I love a good pun title. No, actually, I tell a lie. I fucking hate puns.
It’s an amusing perhaps pun, at least, or it’s not even a pun, and is more of an ironic title. The Kingdom referred to in the title isn’t necessarily the United Kingdom as it is known (that dwindling empire of yesteryear, that dwindles ever more with each passing year that the Tories are in charge), but another place divided by strife in Africa that the helpful Brits generously decided to help out of the goodness of their hearts.
That kingdom , that used to be called Bechuanaland, had itself, after World War II, a very merry yet precarious existence. Its status as an independent kingdom was guaranteed by Queen Victoria somehow (meaning it was essentially a vassal state), however changes are afoot, apparently. At least at the time that the flick begins. An uncle, serving as regent ruler, lives in some hut somewhere, and sends the heir to the throne, Seretse (the amazing David Oyelowo), a letter telling him it’s time to come home from Oxford to assume the mantle of kingship, time to rule his people like he was always meant to.
Seretse is, somehow, in 1940s Britain, studying law and getting along just fine down the local pub with his mates. He meets, through a church group, a lovely young Brit called Ruth (Rosamund Pike). They fall in love, have some babies, and lived happily ever after.
Oh, no, wait, no, that’s not what happened. I forgot. This was 1940s Britain. Ruth’s own father tells her she’s dead to him because of her relationship. They get sworn at on the street and violently accosted. Ruth sees and hears all this with incredulity. Doesn’t she know she’s living in Britain?
It’s almost a surprise to her that her boyfriend, soon to be husband, isn’t as universally adored by others as he is by her. She really doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. She loves him, he loves her, there’s nothing simpler in the world. Once they get married of course, I’m sure all the fuss will die down.
Of course things get complicated when you want to marry (for love) the next in line to the throne of an African country the Empire wants to retain control of. It’s okay if it’s the Hapbergs, sorry, the House of Windsor deciding to marry the member of one royal family to the offspring of another dynasty. But when a lowly British commoner dares to marry a king, well, no-one’s going to be happy other than the happy couple.
At least on their wedding night.
It turns out to be completely accurate that the bishop that was meant to marry them was told by the government not to officiate the wedding. Imagine that. The government telling a couple in love not to marry. What savage, barbaric times those poor people lived through.
Imagine the government telling a bishop, on the day when, for many people (perhaps), they are finally going to have legal, church-sanctioned sex, to stop it from going ahead. Imagine the sheer ridiculousness of being cockblocked by both Church and the fucking State!
Yeah, as if they waited until their wedding night *pshaw*
I don’t know what elements of this story are most berserk / hardest to believe yet true: the idea that the goddamn Parliament of Britain got involved in this fiasco, or that Seretse’s own people rioted over the fact that he married a white Brit. It seems so… quaint that people would make such a to-do over it. I don’t just mean the sheer anachronism of unvarnished, open racism and such, because, let’s face it, that level of prejudice never went away; it was just waiting for its time to Brexit all over the place again.
So Seretse battles prejudice, politicians like Winston Fucking Churchill and Clement Atlee of all people, thinking that the fact that he has a law degree would somehow help, his own sisters, his uncle, most importantly, and hopes that impassioned speeches and appealing to the better angels of people’s natures will somehow win the day.
When he travels between his homeland and Great Britain, he finds he’s little more than a prawn and a pawn in the game of thrones / nation states. And, despite the open, sickening prejudice that will be served up to him in person (by jerks such as fictional senior civil servant Sir Alistair Canning , played so smugly and face-punchingly by Jack Davenport), the real game being played has more to do with fighting over mineral rights and placating institutionally racist nations such as South Africa to safeguard British investment that it has to do with any particular hatred of interracial relationships.
Ruth is perhaps accurately portrayed, in terms of being a person who just loves her husband and wants to do right by him and his family, and doesn’t want to cause a fuss and all that, but it really doesn’t leave her with that much to do, other than mouth words of support and miss her husband terribly when they’re separated for years and talking on the phone. There’s also a tad of the White Woman’s Burden in the scenes once the ‘action’ moves to Bechuanaland, and she’s trying to win over the ladies of Seretse’s tribe, and they have even more hostility towards her than even the racist Brits. Rosamund Pike, however, can do a lot with a little, conveying a lot of emotion just with the tension in her face, and she can never really be doubted in any role ever after what she pulled in Gone Girl, oh good gods no.
She’s fine in the role, but the scope and sweep of this story is so much bigger and more fascinating than anything she really did beyond marrying the cockblocked King of Bechuanaland despite being white. David Oyelowo, who is truly one of the finest jerks in this whole acting caper at the moment, gets all the impassioned speeches and all the crowd pleasing scenes, because that’s what you do when you hire David Oyelowo. Once someone has played the Most Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr, you’re never really going to ask him to dial it back. He’s such a commanding presence as an actor, so accomplished at what he does that I think they should just give him awards before they start making films just to save time.
The unbelievable story goes on to its staggering conclusion, and I’m happy to report that, spoilers be damned, it’s something of a happy ending for all concerned except for the British Empire and those dastardly South Africans, and by South Africans I really mean the Dutch Afrikaners! Bechuanaland undergoes a transformation and becomes the better known Botswana, and everyone, especially pensioners on cheap Mondays at the local arthouse cinema, gets to enjoy an entertaining and pleasant story about something that happened not long ago. How wonderful!
7 times I wonder whether I could convince a nation to accept me as its white bitch king / queen based solely on the eloquence of my remarks and my regal bearing ah fuck it out of 10
“No man is free who is not master of himself.” – and yet men who ‘master’ themselves too often aren’t much chop either – A United Kingdom