Starring: Maxell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor
The year is 2001, and William Kamkwamba is gearing up for his first day of school. His father, Trywell, has laid out his uniform for him on his bed. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for an audience accustomed to inspirational true stories on the BBC and on Netflix – but William lives in Malawi and his village is always struggling with a lack of rain, and, subsequently, a lack of food. School isn’t a priority for most people, but it’s everything William dreams of.
12 Years A Slave actor Chiwetel Ejiofor marks his directorial debut as he tells William’s story. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on the young boy’s autobiography, retelling his teenage years in which he used his hunger for progress, building a wind turbine that saved his village suffering from poverty and famine. William’s tremendous achievement is honoured triumphantly, and if anything, the main problem lies with just how inspirational this film is.
Ejiofor casts himself as Trywell Kamkwamba, opposite newcomer Maxwell Simba as William. The film navigates the tension between father and son, as Trywell is a proud but struggling farmer, protective of his family and village but incapable of seeing past his limited education in the name of untested innovation. William is ever curious and ambitious, fixing things around the house just for fun. It’s when his family can no longer pay his school fees that his mind turns to a more long-term solution.
While William’s story is unique, the film feels all too familiar. A neat signposted structure (the film’s acts are titled ‘Sowing’, ‘Harvesting’, ‘Hunger’ and ‘Wind’) breaks down each new chapter, but rarely offers any surprise in the way such extraordinary events are being explained.
Ejiofor puts in a rich performance as the conflicted leader, with deep frustration and persistent care for his family throughout it all. Simba brings valiant energy, but often struggles to convey a sense of authenticity – the caution in his body language often asks whether the subject matter would be more engrossing as a documentary, as the prolific Kamkwamba is still giving talks on innovation in the real world.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind gives this extraordinary story of achievement a bombastic platform, but often struggles to infuse any sense of invigorating strife. It's a good thing to witness a different world, but here we all could have benefited from a more daring approach.
Reviewed at the 2019 Berlinale. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will be available on Netflix on 1 March.
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01 Mar 19 – 01 Mar 20, COMING SOON TO NETFLIX
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