There’s a little of the Queen of Katwe about Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s new film, his first as writer and director. Like Mira Nair’s earlier feature, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind finds supreme smarts in a community lacking finance enough to support education. Themes of modernity and traditionalism sit well alongside a nice handling of contemporary shifts in masculinity and a self-dependent vision of developing Africa. Entirely enjoyable, the film benefits from sturdy performances and an impressively sensory delivery.
It helps that the true story, upon which the film is based, is utterly remarkable. Based on the memoir of William Kamkwamba – the titular boy – this is the tale of a Malawian family almost driven to extinction by terrible luck and an even more heinous political climate. The film is set in 2006 and unfurls around that year’s floods, which devastated harvests across the southeast of Africa. William (an affecting Maxwell Simba) is the son of hardworking farmer Trywell (Ejiofor) and his equally sedulous wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga). It is through his mother’s lineage that William has inherited his intellect and the Kamkwamba’s are committed to ensuring that such promise is not squandered in the fields. There is, however, a hitch. Having succeeded already in pushing their eldest through the local school, money is too tight to do the same for William. And that’s even before the year’s harvest sorely disappoints.
With help from his would be science teacher – who just happens to be dating his sister on the sly – William is able to wend his way into the school library. Here, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Sikelo (two time Olivier award-winner Noma Dumezweni) he secretly satiates his lust for knowledge. Here, he learns of the revolutionary power of renewable energy. When weather shifts see floods replaced by drought, William conceives of a plan to take back control of his family’s fate. In scavenging local dumps, William finds that everything he could possibly want to construct a homemade wind turbine within his reach. A wind turbine could harness the wind to give power, which might then galvanise a water pump and nourish the ground.
Scribed in a fluid mix of English and Chichewa, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind finds cinematic energy in its capacity to provoke genuine empathy. Naturalistic performances from across the film’s ensemble widen its realist reach – against a plethora of photogenic visuals – by opening up an entirely believable family unit. Their patter, struggles and day to day interactions ring true, while the turbulence of their journey through Kamkwamba’s story has a well crafted immediacy. If the ups and downs of the film lend themselves very neatly to conventional structures, there’s roughage enough to maintain some degree of compelling uncertainty. Ejiofor directs at his own pace and with admirable adherence to the story’s light and shade. By virtue of the approach, his themes develop well and his victories strike as well earned.
Thoroughly enjoyable that the film is in its own right, Ejiofor’s chief triumph as director is in his assemblage of a rather remarkable sensory dynamic. While a vast majority will solely experience the film on Netflix, any opportunity to be embraced by it on larger screens should be sought out and treasured. Dick Pope’s sumptuous savannah cinematography swells from the on location filming and does much to heighten the bolder visuals, costumes and props shot. Beautiful that Malawi is, it can also be hostile. Aurally, Antônio Pinto’s score is pleasant but plays second fiddle to the terrific quality of the films foley, natural and additional sonorous effects. Every rustling crop, splash of rain and bellow of wind is caught and transmitted as integral.
All brought together, this is immersive, intelligent, filmmaking and a tremendous first effort from Ejiofor. In ploughing his own way, the already renowned star has sown something special indeed.