Necessity is the mother of invention – not that schoolboy William in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s impressive directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, actually invents something. But what he creates is born of the most profound necessity. Survival.
Set in Malawi in 2001, it’s based on the true story of William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba), who lives in a small farming village which is nearly destroyed by the country’s worst ever famine. A resourceful boy with a natural talent for science, he earns pocket money by repairing people’s radios and scrabbling around the nearby dump, retrieving batteries and making them work again. When the village’s crops are all but destroyed and the food starts to run out, he hits upon an idea that he’s convinced will bring his home back to life.
Ejiofor directs, wrote (he adapted the real William’s book) and stars as the boy’s father in this uplifting but wonderfully unsentimental story of a boy triumphing against the odds, one which interweaves the life of a family beset by one blow after another with global issues like climate change and politics. William watches as his father sells the trees on the family farm to make some essential and quick money, but it turns the land into a dustbowl. At the same time, the boy desperately tries to cling on to his place at school, and the entire family suffers the impact of his older sister Annie leaving home for a better life and the simultaneously terrifying and tragic impact of famine. His mother recalls she and his father were determined that their children would go to school, would have a better life than theirs. “We’re modern people,” they’d said to each other, yet the truth paints a different picture:dad ploughs the fields by hand, water comes from a well. It’s close to a hand to mouth existence, yet it’s the 21st century.
It’s hard to resist the emotional pull of the film, especially as it constantly resists the temptation to lean towards sentiment. That gritty feeling in your eye will come: it’s only a matter of time. You’ll also share in that sense of triumph that goes with William’s creation actually working and bringing the village back to life. That final shot of him looking down on what he’s created combines triumph and optimism in equal measure. And Ejiofor tells his story with a simple confidence, one that goes with the knowledge that it’s a strong narrative with believable characters that also addresses bigger issues. He puts in a strong performance himself, but it’s left to newcomer Maxwell Simba to carry the film on his 14 year old shoulders and he does it with ease.
The recent awards success of Roma has re-awakened the debate about the distribution in cinemas of Netflix movies. This may not turn out to be an award winner, but we’re back on the same territory: the film has been shown in a select few – very few – cinemas a week before its launch on the streaming service. And it’s one that would definitely benefit from being shown on the big screen. The Malawi landscapes as seen through the lens of no less a cinematographer than Dick Pope don’t get quite the showcase they deserve on the small screen, especially when they’re there to make a point. Drink in that opening landscape of lush greenery and contrast it later on with the scorched, clumped earth that’s left. And then imagine how it would have looked on the bigger screen.
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is told with warmth, compassion and skill, it captivates and moves – in fact, it does just about everything you could ever want from a film. So where does Ejiofor go from here? Behind a mic for the voice of Scar in Jon Favreau’s The Lion King later this year and in Maleficent 2, which we won’t see until 2020. As for behind the camera, just let it be soon.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Drama, True Story | Selected UK cinemas, 22 February (2019) | Netflix, 1 March (2019) | Netflix | Dir. Chiwetel Ejiofor | Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Aissa Maiga and Lily Banda.