Dir: Amma Asante. 2016. UK. 105 mins
A workmanlike and sometimes clumsy screenplay is not enough to extinguish the spark from this real-life fairytale romance, which delivers both a heartfelt emotional story and a grim lesson in 20th-century British foreign policy. The whirlwind mixed-race romance between Ruth Williams, a clerk from South London (played by Rosamund Pike), and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (later Botswana), became an international news story when the British government attempted to permanently exile the couple from his country.
The film speaks most expressively through the small observational moments
The combination of Oyelowo, fresh from Selma, Pike, coming off Gone Girl, and director Amma Asante riding the goodwill surrounding Belle should generate heat around this project. Add to this the socio-political context which lends weight to this handsomely mounted tale of love against the odds, and the result is a film which should connect with a mature, awards season audience.
Its appeal will likely skew slightly older than that for Belle, reflecting the ages of the central protagonists; and while interest might peak in theUK and Botswana, there is a universality in the themes explored.
The film moves briskly through the set-up of the two characters. Having spent a year at Balliol College, Oxford, Seretse Khama is studying to be a barrister at the Inner Temple in London, rising above the slurs and snide jabs of his fellow gentlemen students. Ruth is a serious young woman who is already being put out to pasture as an old maid by a family who can’t imagine why she would want to attend a missionary dance with her younger sister. But on a whim, she goes. And there, she meets Seretse.
The spark of love at first sight is a difficult thing to convey persuasively, but Asante achieves it, through neat framing and the decision to put Ruth in a green dress that draws the eye and holds it.
Although some of the dialogue is a little expository and on the nose, particularly in the early stages of the film, there is a connection between Pike and Oyelowo which feels authentic and warm. But it’s when the couple, hastily married and not yet appreciating the full force of opposition to their relationship, arrive in Africa that the film takes off. Suddenly infused with a magic hour glow, the shift in colour palette underscores Ruth’s outsider status. And a potent encounter with her sister-in-law and aunt undermines any hope of easy acceptance as the new queen.
Pike brings an eloquent physicality to the role – although she moves with easy fluidity when dancing with Seretse to the jazz they both love, out of her element Ruth is all apologetic angles and elbows; her attempt to master a regal wave looks like the aftermath of a badly dislocated elbow.
Oyelowo meanwhile, is lumbered with dialogue which deals with much of the historical scene-setting. He delivers it with statesmanlike gravitas, but it’s in the scenes which deal with his love for Ruth rather than his love for the country that the character really comes to life.
Asante deftly fields the political manoeuvring and machinations, without ever losing sight of the central love story. And that is no small achievement, given that thanks to the involvement of the British government, the couple are separated for a considerable chunk of the film. It is Ruth’s satisfying story arc which comes to the fore. She is of a generation of women for whom self-pity is an alien concept; hers is a buckle-down-and-get-on-with-it approach which is – ultimately – recognised by the people of Bechuanaland, and forms the basis of their mutual respect.
The film speaks most expressively through the small observational moments: Ruth moving her stool to join a circle of nursing mothers, the couple’s feet pressed together supportively, out of sight of the sherry-quaffing British officials.
Production company: AUK Production Services Ltd, Pathe UK, BBC Films, BFI, Ingenious
International sales: Pathé International
Producer: David Oyelowo, Rick McCallum, Justin Moore-Lewy, Brunson Green, Charlie Mason, Peter Heslop
Screenplay: Guy Hibbert
Cinematography: Sam McCurdy
Editors: Jon Gregory, Jon Amos
Production design: Simon Bowles
Original score: Patrick Doyle
Main cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Terry Pheto, Laura Carmichael