Biopics tend to follow a fairly standard formula: whether they chronicle an entire life or only an episode thereof, they see an ordinary person faced with seemingly insurmountable (and real) challenges, becoming extraordinary when they ultimately triumph. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind does nothing exceptional with this form – it hits all the expected beats from the hero’s personal and familial responsibilities affecting his goal to a brief mention of socio-political conflict. It is, however, a heartfelt and well-paced narrative that celebrates one young man’s ingenuity and determination against a backdrop of rich community relationships.
The narrative builds up to the titular wind harnessing, meaning that – while gripping throughout – the stakes are somewhat lowered even if one is unfamiliar with the story of William Kamkwamba and his windmill made of scraps. The mechanically minded William grows up harvesting corn on his family’s farm, which barely generates enough income for his and his sister’s schooling. After struggling to study with no electricity, and deforestation contributing to a flood and drought cycle, pushing William towards poor grades and his village towards famine, he begins his investigation into a wind powered pump that could irrigate crops regularly. Despite the lack of surprises in the well-connected plot, it moves swiftly; characterisations are somewhat thinly drawn, though relationships are lovingly, believably defined – to fit in as many events as possible. It is not a bad choice, keeping considerable momentum and allowing William’s work to take centre stage.
The political issues exacerbating Malawi’s famine are simply explained as corruption; slightly more context would have been nice for those unfamiliar with the country’s situation in the late 1990s, but its structure allows full focus on William’s eventful personal journey – at the end of the day it is entertainment, not education. Despite the fact that these elements are glossed over, a sharply observed local world emerges. The Netflix money means the production looks meticulously detailed and immediately instils a strong sense of time and place. William’s friends and family may not all be three-dimensional, his best friend exists to spur on his mechanical experiments and, as the chief’s son, serve as William’s personal connection to village politics, and his mother and sister have little to do outside of their family work and concerns – all feel believable without character inconsistencies. Ultimately, this atmosphere and world-building immerse viewers fully, adding interest to the film’s standard structure.
What lifts this film to true highs is the perfectly judged relationship between Trywell (Ejiofor) and William (Maxwell Simba) which encapsulates the film’s heart. Theirs is an entirely believable relationship, often combative and ultimately loving as each seek only the best for their communities and each other. Ejiofor gives a sensitive, emotive performance capturing Trywell’s dynamism – intensely demanding of himself and his family, but also undoubtedly full of love and pride for his only son. It easily ranks among his best work. Simba makes William easily lovable through his curiosity, drive, and willingness to (sometimes mischievously) bend the rules to serve his education and family. His coming-of-age arc earns sympathy through his work’s altruism and unflappability in the face of extreme poverty (yes, this is where a socioeconomic analysis would come in handy, but the script oozes too much goodwill for the exceptionalism to grate).
Behind the camera, Ejiofor is assured. While the film is shot fairly conventionally, he demonstrates a masterful control of the audience’s focus, changing angles and widths in a scene to shift and expand perspectives. Additionally, his performance – however excellent – is unshowy, blending into the ensemble without giving himself unearned moments in the spotlight (Bradley Cooper, take note). One hopes that his career on both sides of the camera finds such strong acting roles and further develops this storytelling assurance.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind may not redefine biopic cinema or give any context greater than William’s own story. However, Ejiofor’s debut is a wonderful watch celebrating an underappreciated local hero (at least in the US and UK) and capturing the largest and smallest obstacles in one teenager’s fight against his community’s circumstances. In these regards, it is a success.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie