This fact-based British drama reveals colonial atrocities in Kenya through the life of an octogenarian determined to get the education he was denied decades earlier. Guilt and glossiness form the foundation of the slick production, which, despite the best intentions of all those working under director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), exudes a mildly patronizing vapor that dampens the emotional affect and any historical incisiveness. Picturesque and ennobling though it may be, don't expect major action on The First Grader's bi-coastal release this Friday, or during its subsequent expansion into metropolitan markets.
The movie tells the true story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (former newscaster Oliver Litondo in his first lead role), a Kenyan villager who fought in the 1953 Mau Mau rebellion against British rule—and suffered dearly for it. In 2003, the 84-year-old hears the government is offering a free education for all and attempts to enroll in a remote primary school. Determined to learn how to read and write, he soon convinces Head Teacher Jane Obinchu (London-born actress Naomie Harris) that he's worthy of her principled efforts to accommodate him. Not only is he 70-plus years older than his fellow pupils, but his hearing and eyesight are poor and he has a pronounced limp.
Through numerous flashbacks to the revolutionary period, we discover most of his infirmities can be traced to his treatment at the hands of the British occupiers and their Kenyan collaborators. Any first-act suspense concerning whether he'll be admitted to school is undercut by the movie's title. And rather than delve into the intricacies of Kenya's battle for independence, the controversy surrounding his matriculation is primarily linked to Jane's career and marriage. That tension, even when combined with revelations about the extent of what Maruge endured in various internment camps, mostly serves to convey a generic message about the power of education.
Even given narrative license, South African-born screenwriter Ann Peacock has trouble cobbling together a truly compelling plot that deals with Kenyan history, including tribalism, in a detailed way. Granted, it's a challenging assignment that she goes approximately three-quarters of the way toward meeting. In the process, she let slip a few hackneyed lines. For instance, the rejoinder to one character's plea, "Can't we just put the past behind us?" is the equally hoary "The past is always present." Ultimately the scenario boils down to the dual message: the sacrifices of past generations must be respected and it's impossible to overvalue education. A society endeavoring to move beyond tribalism, colonialism and endemic corruption deserves more subtle rhetoric.
As befits a film released under the National Geographic banner, cinematographer Rob Hardy captures lovely images of the arresting and atypical Rift Valley setting, framing the real schoolchildren cast in the contemporary scenes, as well as less joyful episodes from Maruge's past, with care. The decision not to alter the look of the flashback footage too much (there's a little fuzziness) was admirable. Still, these alternately harrowing and maudlin scenes are awkwardly telegraphed.
Comparing The First Grader to The King's Speech may seem like a stretch, but they share an outwardly attractive if reductive sheen, and both offer a tantalizing glimpse into history by encapsulating it in an unlikely and overburdened friendship. Comparison to another Royal House of Windsor-related flick is perhaps more germane.
In director Chadwick's quasi-literate costume porn, The Other Boleyn Girl, from Philippa Gregory's novel, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson play sisters proffered to Henry VIII by male elders. An example of semi-inspirational, somewhat superior, do-gooder cinema, The First Grader offers up an elderly Kenyan revolutionary as a vehicle for exorcising western guilt about colonialism and underscoring the universal benefits of reading, writing and arithmetic. It's a tale that should be told by native Kenyans.
Distributor: National Geographic Entertainment
Cast: Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo, Tony Kgoroge, Israel Makoe, Alfred Munyua, Vusumuzi Michael Kunene, Kamau Mbaya
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: Ann Peacock
Producers: Richard Harding, Sam Feuer, David M. Thompson
Genre: Drama/History/Biography; in English and Kikuyu, with English subtitles
Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing violent content and brief nudity.
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: May 13 ltd.