Director: Amma Asante (2016) BBFC cert: 12A
The sincerity of this solid historical drama is undermined by the overly flattering portrayal of its subjects, the real life mixed race rulers of Beuchanaland, Seretse and Ruth Khama.
As played by Brit actors David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, they are paragons of quiet dignity and determination. Oyelowo is impressively impassioned as the law student turned politician who believes in equality, inclusion and unity. However, with Pike’s accent as well cut as her cheekbones, the supposedly middle class Ruth frequently comes across as far more regal than her royal husband.
As they fight to bring independence to what is today Botswana, the devoted couple face the considerable forces of colonialism, exploitation, prejudice, propaganda and ridiculous ceremonial pomp. Together they battle the Empire, their own citizens, his disapproving family and piratical American mining corporations.
Racially segregated in practice but not in law, the then British protectorate of Bechuanaland was one of the one of worlds poorest countries. It suffered malaria, malnutrition, drought and poverty.
The Khama’s marriage is considered by the Empire to be inflammatory at a time when neighbouring South Africa is instigating apartheid. And stability is South Africa is paramount to the Empire, the UK’s gold supplies are dependent on it.
Styled the black king and white queen by the British press, the Khamas are not prepared to be pawns in the Empire’s game of global politics. Representing the Empire is Jack Davenport‘s wonderfully oily Sir Alistair Canning. Jack Lowden appears as Tony Benn MP. True to form, the self-styled conscience of the parliamentary Labour party spends his time battling his own side.
A companion piece to her period piece Belle (2014), Asante fashions her material with deft confidence and produces an engaging and handsome work. The opening scene is a joy of character and thematic economy. We witness Seretse taking part in a university boxing match. He is shown to be a courageous but naive fighter who is defeated at the hands of treacherous former public school boys.
London is believably stuffy and smog-filled, contrasting well with the bright open and faint optimism of Bechuanaland. There is a smooth dexterity in the handling of scenes which alternate between the intimate and the epic.
However the story struggles against the inertia of reality. The script is stretched having to cover a distance of thousands of miles and a time scale measured in years. Nor does it help having the central duo spend long periods on different continents.
The scant awareness of this story in the west lends the film a fresh appeal. It’s handsomely crafted and well played. It’s an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of an African nation and a celebration of democracy. All of which is welcome. But as a drama I wished it had more grit.