In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Ejiofor has found an astonishing true story to tell, based on a book by William Kamkwamba, the boy of the title. It’s 2001 in Malawi, and the Kamkwamba family is struggling to make ends meet but parents Trywell (Ejiofor) and Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) remain focused on their children’s education, despite the financial cost. When their 13-year-old son William (Maxwell Simba) is forced to leave school after falling behind on payments, he becomes determined to help not only his family but a community facing famine.
When adapting a novel with a child protagonist, directors too often resort to creating an overly childlike film, earnest and sentimental to a fault, any sense of reality failing to seep through. From The Kite Runner to The Lovely Bones, a delicate balance of trauma and treacle on the page has erred toward an overdose of the latter on the big screen. Ejiofor, from a script he adapted himself, is up against a similar battle but despite behind-camera inexperience, he manages to toe the line with ease, skilfully manoeuvring between charm and poignancy. It’s a conventional film in many ways but one that slowly and effectively builds to a remarkably rousing climax, displaying an act of overwhelming ingenuity that’s hard to deny.
For some, the journey there might be a tad too slow but I’d argue that it’s a necessary crawl: Ejiofor carefully lays the film’s emotional foundation and ensures that the story is never less than involving. A great credit here should also be given to newcomer Simba, whose lead performance is really quite extraordinary. With his soulful eyes and infectious enthusiasm, he anchors the drama around him, easily steering himself through the story’s emotional shifts as he matures from a playful child to a philanthropic saviour.
While Ejiofor does pitch the film at a broad audience, he makes a key decision not to force his characters to always speak English. They oscillate between English and Chichewa, mostly using the latter, and at a time when too many film-makers are choosing to avoid subtitles, even when telling fact-based stories from foreign countries, it’s hugely refreshing. There’s an interesting throughline, rarely seen on screen, of tradition v modernity in rural Africa, of parents deliberately eschewing what they perceive to be dated belief systems of the past to encourage progress. They don’t want to rely on praying for rain to save their crops; they want pragmatism instead. It’s also reflected in a desire for education so that children can leave their village, determined that they won’t be facing similar hardships as adults.
There’s similar complexity in the characterisation, most notably in Ejiofor’s conflicted, flawed father who craves education for his children yet must deal with the consequences of feeling less intelligent than them and of the crippling financial impact. Ejiofor has long been a charming presence on screen but here he’s stripped back of his more obvious star presence and is no less impressive as a haunted, beleaguered and not always likable man.
There’s unavoidable darkness in the story and Ejiofor leans into the brutal reality of Malawi’s early 2000s food crisis while balancing the more harrowing details with notes of resilience and hope. When the climax arrives, it’s with immense, earned satisfaction, a crowd-pleasing triumph that will have to be enjoyed on Netflix without one.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will premiere on Netflix on 1 March
– The Guardian