An expansive shot of Wimbe, Malawi fills the screen, the azure blue of the sky a harsh contrast to the dry beige of the earth beneath. The camera remains still, with the only movement provided by a gust of wind, bristling through the trees and adding a note of potential to an otherwise increasingly hopeless situation.
This is a reoccurring image in the Netflix Original movie The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, and one that best summarises the film’s unsinkable message of hope and determination.
The film centres around the real-life tale of William Kamkwamba, as he uses his ingenuity, determination, and engineering skills to save his village from famine and poverty. The political strife that rounds out the remainder of the plot provides a fascinating backdrop that elevates the simple story.
The viewer is certainly encouraged to regard Kamkwamba’s struggle as inspirational, yet first-time feature film director Chiwetel Ejiofor makes it clear that the famine at the heart of the story is utterly preventable.
In order to underline this point, the story introduces us to some of the corrupt individuals who make the famine so much harder, and the connection between this corruption and the hardships visited on the story’s main characters is all too obvious. The title of the film may give you some idea as to what is going to happen, but getting there remains a moving experience.
The slow yet powerful plot is lifted by the wonderful performances on display. Maxwell Simba as William is quietly dignified and intelligent, always acutely aware of the dire situation he finds himself in, but never too nihilistic to try and find a way forward.
Lingering closeups of Simba’s face as he listens in on his elders provide a great example of the subtlety of the actor’s performance, as he strains to find a way to help his loved ones and his village out of a helpless position.
Ejiofor is equally fantastic as William’s father Trywell, a good-hearted farmer worn down by the increasing powerlessness of his village against both the famine and the subsequent lack of government assistance.
However, while Simba’s emotional response to the crisis is more muted, Ejiofor’s Trywell is often downright indgnant, his well justified anger providing a great foil to Simba whenever the two are onscreen together.
For his debut feature, Ejiofor does a beautifully understated job in directing The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Extreme wide shots of the famine juxtapose with closeups of William’s family to give the struggle an intimate feel, while the recurring motif of William’s face dissolving into the sky offers reassurance during bleaker moments that the younger generations are still capable of restoring hope.
Ejiofor’s movie is that rarest of Netflix films, one that doesn’t continually remind you that you are watching it on the small screen. Perhaps surprisingly, the scope and scale of the film is not remotely compromised by the format. Indeed, the only criticism I have in this regard is the length of the shots – at times, the film cuts too early, not allowing the talented actors the space they need to flesh out their rendition of the characters.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is certainly not perfect. It is somewhat predictable and as mentioned, the shot length is problematic at times. Nonetheless, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directoral debut is certainly worthy of your attention. It is a beautiful film with layer upon layer of depth and a simple yet powerful message.