Have you ever gone to a movie just because you found an actor attractive? I've had a modest crush on Rosamund Pike ever since she debuted, more or less, in the Bond programmer Die Another Day. Since then she's been a dependable supporting player in titles like The World's End and An Education, though rarely anchoring a film until Gone Girl finally made her a leading lady.
So here was Pike in posters and trailers for A United Kingdom, smiling radiantly in her flattering late '40s/early '50s outfits, and I couldn't resist. It didn't hurt that her leading man was David Oyelowo, who's great in just about everything. Give them a compelling story based on real events, and you've got a solid, old-fashioned, grownup drama.
Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, who in 1947 was due to ascend to the throne of Bechuanaland (today's Botswana), leading his tribe during a politically complex time, with colonialism nearing its end. While finishing up his studies in London, however, Khama fell for a white English typist named Ruth Williams (Pike). Against the dawn of Apartheid in South Africa, along with Britain's postwar need for stability and resources, their relationship understandably ruffled a few feathers.
Comparisons to Loving, released just months earlier, are apt: in both cases, we are examining a real-life interracial marriage that would change history. But although A United Kingdom is a British production, I'd say it adheres to the Hollywood style of filmmaking, whereas Loving is strictly Sundance material. This is not to say that this is the inferior film; in fact, I preferred it. Because where Loving was about mood, A United Kingdom is about story. The Khamas are far more dynamic figures than the Lovings, and their drama has convincingly greater stakes. Loving may be subtler and more artful, but A United Kingdom is a hell of a lot more interesting.
For narrative necessity, the romance in A United Kingdom eventually takes a back seat to the political intrigue that plagued the Khamas, but I found all the diplomatic maneuvering fascinating; ignorant as I am about African history, I had no idea what happened to these people, so I was kept in suspense. Others may get turned off by the politics, especially as it keeps Pike and Oyelowo, who have such great chemistry when they're together, apart for much of the second half of the film. Nevertheless, the Khamas' love for each other drives every beat of the plot, and you buy it because Pike and Oyelowo are so good at what they do.
The film looks fantastic, Pike is as radiant as advertised, and I loved the supporting cast, especially Harry Potter antagonist Tom Felton as a weaselly British bureaucrat and Downton Abbey underdog Laura Carmichael as Ruth's sister. A United Kingdom may ultimately be a film for Mom, but that's not a slight – it's well-made, relatively unpredictable, and thoroughly engaging.