Hands up if you know anything about the modern history of Botswana and its King Seretse… I only had the vaguest idea of where exactly Botswana is myself, but events there shortly after WWII exemplified the attitude of white colonialists to their coloured subjects. The country was a protectorate of the United Kingdom, with Seretse’s uncle as its token ruler while Seretse (David Oyelowo), the heir to the throne, was studying law in England. When he met and married Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman, in 1947, their marriage was met with outrage at Westminster, and even in Botswana itself, where it antagonised those traditionalists who could not accept Ruth as the ‘mother of the nation’. The first part of the movie is primarily concerned with the challenges that a racially mixed marriage presents to a narrow-minded, anally conservative, Cory Bernardian society – the couple were generally treated with contempt, to the point that Ruth was disowned by her father. Director Amma Asante’s treatment of this issue feels strangely passé, Mills and Boonish even, but it can’t do any harm to remind people of racism’s crudity and ugliness. The story is cranked up a gear when Seretse decides to return to Botswana with Ruth to assume his role as king. The idea is abhorrent to the Empire, with those in the Foreign Office wishing in no way to get off-side with South Africa, where the disgusting practice of Apartheid was being introduced. Both Seretse and Ruth have to deal with the unctuous Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the diplomat overseeing Britain’s interests in southern Africa. As a sort of Sir Humphrey Appleby with scales and venom, Davenport nearly steals the show in a fabulously hateful performance.
The Machiavellian manoeuvrings on both sides are abridged for the purposes of the narrative, but Winston Churchill, elected prime minister as the matter was coming to a head, emerges from of the affair looking like a total grub. It is a simple tale well told, with an enlightening postscript.