Director: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Idris Elba, Ama K. Abebrese, Abraham Attah, Grace Nortey, David Dontoh, Opeyemi Fagbohungb
Attached to the arrival of Cary Fukunaga’s startling, blistering adaptation are the very winds of change. As the film opens, the familiarity of a title card hits you hard: this is the first full motion picture from online streaming service Netflix – creators of original programming including Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. Following a recent trend with their small screen forays, Beasts of No Nation is a similarly immersive experience. In fact, it is so overtly overpowering that you feel as though the future of our art form could be unfolding.
This savagely brilliant retelling of Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel is a war film set in an unnamed West African country and projected through a young boy called Agu, stunningly controlled by Ghanaian first-time actor Abraham Attah. During a random and riotous militia attack, he is orphaned from his village and flees into the vast forests isolated and terrified.
Here Agu is captured by a battalion of child soldiers caught in the trance of Idris Elba’s volcanic Commandant – an immeasurable and undeniable presence who moulds them like putty with his firm grasp. Channelled by a severe lack of limits, he is dedicated to overthrowing the government and training his boys in the art of suffering and killing. A towering embodiment of animalistic vigour with disarming fatherly shades that make his later actions on the battlefield all the more repugnant, Commandant too is a victim of the all-consuming violence that’s spreading.
Taking an instant shine to the refugee, the Commandant enlists him as a personal retainer alongside the even younger Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye – a native and screen newbie also), and together the unit carve a gory swathe across country – progressed by Elba’s intoxicating rhetoric and their own unexpected thirst for blood.
Equally as horrific as the events witnessed was the process of shooting Beasts of No Nation. Filmed on location in the jungles of Ghana during monsoon season, floodwaters wreaked havoc with the sets and essential resources were in infinitely short supply. Adding further insult to injury across the five-week process, crew members were held at gunpoint, the star fell from a cliff, Fukunaga caught malaria and a number of extras were imprisoned. Yet despite such difficulties providing audiences with this alarming and unflinching portrait, the efforts were undoubtedly worthy.
Fukunaga – whose recent credits include the intrinsic, invasive direction for HBO’s True Detective – builds a broodingly palpable vision; one supercharged with adrenaline. So alert is the thematic palette that significant sequences stun with their urgency. His muscular framing feels like we are witnessing a fight, one that is entirely consuming and potentially victorious. As the boys stomp to Elba’s persuasive beat, bounding off him as they psyche themselves up, the mood is alive with pulsating and often pulverising energy – an exceptionally tricky balancing act.
Beasts of No Nation quite rightly straddles the same bar as say Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. It is an uncompromising, endlessly attacking work that isn’t scared to disgust or depress, rather ensuring that no political, social and oddly spiritual stones are left unturned. A handful of moments are fist-grippingly gruesome (so much so that hands were shading eyes in one’s screening), and this is the desired reaction from both the auteur and scribe. It is a showcase of deranged panic and enveloping frenzy.
Despite how morally foul Elba’s Commandant may be, he is also the integral anchor that keeps Netflix’s punishingly profound drama grounded. The earthy, foliage-drenched locations might be transfixing in their authenticity, but Elba is transfixing in his authority. Controlling the child characters and indeed the performers, he is able to counteract their inexperience and render them as professionals. The aura of honesty that surrounds the bond makes the actions all the more heartbreaking and magnetic.
Musings and mumblings across the London Film Festival suggest that Beasts of No Nation has the legs for Oscar consideration – and it most certainly deserves such credits (particularly for performance, direction and cinematography) – but a layer of doubt plagues the mind that the Academy will find some loophole in its release or formatting to deny such privileges. Here’s hoping these thoughts are merely thoughts.
The film has a minimal theatrical release and will be available to stream on Netflix later on today (Friday 16th October). Whilst 99% of those consuming Fukunaga’s film will likely catch it on their iPad on the commute, or on their iPhone as they are sat on the loo, this is passionate, progressive and powerful filmmaking – so vivid and validating that is deserves to be witnessed in the correct format. If you can get to a cinema, do so.