Their romance begins innocently enough. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and her sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael, Edith from Downton Abbey), attend an event at the London Society Mission, where they dance with foreigners who are attending colleges in England. Ruth exchanges glances with one of the students, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), and soon they are dancing and talking about their mutual love of jazz. Although not the jazz played by Brits, Ruth jokes. The relationship continues. They share 78 LPs, dance at other venues, and take long moonlit walks.
Seretse is not a regular student, but a king, in line to ascend to the throne in the African country Bechuanaland. When he shares his status with Ruth, she takes the news as a sign that their romance is over. Instead Seretse proposes, bending down on one knee, the blinking lights along the River Thames providing the perfect romantic backdrop. He tells her to think about it, stressing that her life will drastically change. She’s made up her mind, however, and accepts on the spot.
The opposition begins to line up. Ruth’s father, George (Nicholas Lyndhurst), is outraged, telling Ruth she will bring shame to the family. If she goes ahead with the marriage, he says, he won’t see her again. Equally furious about the impeding union is Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), the regent of the Bangwatho Kingdom, who has raised his nephew since the death of his parents. Taking a white woman as his queen, the uncle emphasizes to his nephew, will endanger his reign and throw the country into turmoil.
The most strident voice against the marriage comes from the British government, since Bechuanaland is a protectorate under British control. By 1931, South Africa was no longer part of the British Empire, but because of that country’s mineral resources, maintaining economic ties remained important to Britain. In 1948, the South African government’s National Party instituted the segregation policy that became known as apartheid and put pressure on the British government to prevent an interracial royal marriage in Bechuanaland, its neighbor to the north.
Love wins out and the couple, accompanied by Ruth’s sister and some of Seretse’s friends, ties the knot in a small ceremony. Soon they are on a plane to Africa, Ruth thrilled by the scenes below of widebeasts and giraffes fleeing across the terrain. On the ground, the couple is angrily confronted by Tshekedi, his wife, Ella (Abena Ayivor), and Seretse’s sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto). While Tshekedi’s attack is aimed at his nephew, the two women target Ruth, telling her she will never be accepted by them or by anyone in Bechuanaland.
But with the people assembled, Seretse delivers a heartfelt speech, emphasizing that he loves his country, his people, but also his wife and cannot rule without her. (Those watching The Crown on Netflix will no doubt recognize that argument from Edward, Duke of Windsor, who said he could not rule without Wallis Simpson by his side. He was forced to abdicate.) Seretse’s address succeeds in winning over his subjects, but his problems are not over. British government officials demand that Seretse come to London to settle the dispute between him and his uncle. Once in England, however, Seretse is forbidden to return to his country. Thus begins many years of struggle where Seretse and Ruth fight to be reunited and for him to assume his responsibilities.
Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the British government representative to Southern Africa, relishes giving bad news to Seretse, prolonging his suffering, even causing him to miss the birth of his daughter. The crisis becomes a political football in Parliament, with some opposing how Britain is interfering in African affairs for financial gain. The discovery of diamonds in Bechuanaland raises the stakes on all sides. Seretse wants to make sure his people profit from the mining of that resource.
The film is based on the true story of Seretse and Ruth. He went on to become the first elected president of the new country, Botswanna. Ruth won over her detractors, fighting for racial inequality and working for many charitable causes during her lifetime.
Directed by Amma Asante who also directed Belle, the film was shot in London and on location in Botswanna. The script is by Guy Hibbert adapted from the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams. Cinematography by Sam McCurdy, is spectacular.
Some of the supporting cast emerge as caricatures, particularly Davenport and Tom Fenton (bad boy Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), who overdoes his role as a sinister British official. The two leads, however, are not only solid, but a joy to watch as their romance unfolds, hits speed bumps, and then triumphs. Oyelowo and Pike have real chemistry on screen, whether they are dancing in their bedroom, the music heard only faintly from another room, or talking on the phone, their separation exacting a toll.
As Ruth, Rosamund Pike silently absorbs the blows from her new in-laws, a sign not of weakness but of strength. She’s confident in the love she has for her husband, and in his love for her. Through her deeds – taking on labor-intensive work in the village, placing her trust in local doctors, and nursing her newborn daughter alongside village women – she slowly begins to win over even her fiercest enemies, particularly Seretse’s sister, Naledi. (A wonderful performance by Pheto.)
Oyelowo first demonstrated his skills at playing great orators in his performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. This film takes advantage of that talent, giving him several moments where he displays his ability to engage those around him with his words. Yet in the more intimate scenes, whether making a stand against his uncle or taking in the bad news delivered by a supercilious government official, Oyelowo shows another side of Seretse, a leader who despairs that he may never get that chance to lead, not for his own glory, but to lift up his people. It’s an extraordinary performance.
Photos by Stanislav Honzik. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.