In my eyes Chiwetel Ejiofor has clearly established himself as an exceptional actor. Netflix’s latest original film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” proves that Ejiofor has more in his filmmaking skill set than what we have seen in front of the camera. Here he not only stars in the film, but directs and writes the screenplay for what is at its core a soulful and affecting family drama.
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is based on the true story of a 13-year-old boy who built a wind turbine out of scrap to save his small African village from a devastating famine. So you kind of know from the start where the movie is heading. But as cliché as it may sound, this film is genuinely all about the journey and the characters who make up its center – characters who Ejiofor clearly cares about and who are given plenty of room to develop.
Ejiofor plays Trywell Kamkwamba, a husband and father who farms a dry patch of land in the small village of Wimbe. It’s hard work but Trywell and his wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) have managed to put enough back to send their bright and resourceful son William (an excellent Maxwell Simba) to middle school. Their older daughter Annie (Lily Banda) anxiously awaits her chance to go to college once her turn comes back around.
But a series of misfortunes dramatically changes things not only for the Kamkwambas but the entire region. Flooding during the sowing season and a crippling drought that follows leads to a poor harvest. An upcoming election has the troubled government in political turmoil making it an unreliable source for any kind of aid. Economically-strapped villages are left to fend for themselves which sends many into chaos.
This brings a heartbreaking strain on the Kamkwamba family. During this time Ejiofor subtly shifts the point of view from Trywell to William. He observes his father slowly cracking under the pressure, his frustrated sister fighting the urge to leave the village, and his mother desperately trying to keep their household together. Ever the inventive one, William conceives a wild plan to build a wind-powered turbine to provide water for his village. But will anyone buy into his idea?
I really appreciate Ejiofor’s willingness to look at his characters through different lenses. These people are fleshed out and multidimensional with real strengths, faults, and a range of organic emotions. They feel like a living, breathing part of the world Ejiofor vividly presents. It also helps that he shot on location in Malawi. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope, much as he did in “Mr. Turner”, creates a beautiful and immersive canvas that is visually stunning but with enough subtlety to keep from drawing attention to itself.
I loved “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. The predictability may be a hurdle for some and it could be a bit too restrained for those looking for edgier storytelling. But I found it to be a beautiful and at times heartbreaking slice of real life. Ejiofor’s script and direction captures the heart of William Kamkwamba’s touching and inspirational memoir. The performances are even better with Ejiofor rivaling his Oscar-nominated work from “12 Years a Slave” and young Simba standing out as a true revelation.
Ejiofor has said he bought the films rights to this incredible story after being drawn by its optimism and hopefulness. Next he found it essential to be as authentic as possible by learning and incorporating the Chichewa language and by shooting on actual Malawi locations. Finally it was about telling William’s story – a young boy far removed from the privileges we tend to take for granted, living in a village crippled by a famine, but with the heart and know-how to help. The results of Ejiofor’s efforts are exceptional.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS