Harry Casey-Woodward, movie connoisseur, reviews last year’s romantic drama on race and politics in 1940s Botswana.
When the caption ‘based on a true story’ appears onscreen at the start of a movie, I can’t help but feel a mild form of dread. At their worse, some of these films demand to be taken seriously while simplifying historical events and real people into ‘goodies vs baddies’ situations. While this true-story movie is also somewhat guilty, I was pleasantly surprised by its quality which is nearly worthy of the events it depicts.
The film opens in 1940s London, where we meet Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana who is studying while awaiting the time to return home and be king. He is played passionately by David Oyelowo, who also gave a great performance in Disney’s 2016 chess
underdog story Queen of Katwe.
He meets Ruth Williams, a young white London woman played by Rosamund Pike. They fall in love and even decide to marry, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately these consequences turn out to be huge.
They meet opposition from everyone, not just from casual racists in the street but Ruth’s father even disowns her. The situation worsens when Prince Khama brings Ruth to Botswana to be his queen. For marrying a white woman and defying tradition, his uncle tries to undermine his right to the throne.
The British government in charge of Botswana exploit this division to seize further control of the country and its possible resources of diamonds. They even go so far as to have Khama exiled, separating him from Ruth. Even when apart, the pair struggle on to unite Botswana and be re-united with each other.
This romantic drama may have a lot of clichés you may recognise. For example, despite this being a complex political situation the goodies and baddies are clearly defined. Jack Davenport (Admiral Norrington from Pirates of the Caribbean) and Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy) are typecast as the slimy villainous bureaucrats representing British imperialist politics and thwarting the main characters’ romance. There are also times where the film feels a bit overly positive. Rosamund Pike somehow wins over the hearts of the Botswana people and overcomes their prejudices just by being… nice.
However, the film is still a strong comment on racism in the twentieth century. Two people of different colour marry and political turmoil ensues. It also helps that the performances are good. The romance of the leads feels powerful and believable thanks to their incredible acting. Oyelowo reduces himself to tears in one scene when he’s giving a speech to his people on his right to rule. The intense political conflict also makes this more gripping than other milder historic dramas. To be fair, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this cry for love and unity in the face of state-sanctioned prejudice.