Netflix UK film review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Ivan Radford | On 23, Feb 2019Reading time: 4 mins
Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Cast: Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Watch The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind online in the UK: Netflix UK
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is released in select UK cinemas from 22nd February 2019 – find out where it is screening here.
It’s always a good sign when a film features someone going to the library. From The Shawshank Redemption and Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Matilda and anime adventure The Boy and the Beast, any film that sees a character rely on books, for knowledge, help or insight, is almost guaranteed to be a winner. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the directorial debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor, joins that wonderful club, as we follow a young boy who uses a textbook to help make a difference in the world.
Based on the memoir of the same name by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, it tells the story of William (Maxwell Simba), an engineer in a Malawi village, who, as a teenager, was already thinking about how things work and how they might be employed for practical use. Specifically, he begins to dream up the idea of a wind turbine, one that might hook up to a pump to provide much-needed water to his village’s crops. It’s a hare-brained scheme, but one that shines with infectious idealism, and Ejiofor’s achievement is to allow us to join William in gazing at that light. We share his journey from discovery to execution, first sparked by the dynamo that works on a bike, generating power with each spin of the wheel.
But the village, and his family, have little time for such dreams, because there are more pressing practicalities to face. For the village, it’s the lack of water, as they suffer a severe drought, and for the family, it’s the lack of money to pay for William’s school fees – as the stern headmaster insists, without the cash, William isn’t allowed on the premises, leading him to plead with his teacher (Lemogang Tsipa), and the school’s sympathetic librarian (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s Noma Dumezweni), to let him access campus facilities. Specifically, a single book: Using Energy. And so he continues to study in secret, while his father, Trywell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), orders him to help in the fields, digging trenches and hoping for the best.
Maxwell Simba is mature beyond his years as William, conveying a keenly observant mind with a likeable humility; he’s a son who wants to please and help his dad as much as he wants to do his own thing, and balances the two with a charisma that marks him out as a star to watch in the future. Ejiofor, meanwhile, is fantastically understated as the disapproving Kamkwamba patriarch, turning a role that could have been a heavy-handed tyrant into an equally well-meaning, if misguided, figure. That subtle heart is brought out by Aïssa Maïga as his wife, Agnes, and William’s sister (Lily Banda), who has her own complicated ties with the local school. The whole family is acted with a sincerity (including the Bantu language of Chichewa) that’s emotionally gripping; William’s genuine fondness for learning is equally matched by the group’s fondness for each other.
It’s no spoiler to say that the science works, although we won’t say to what extent. But it is a surprise to see just how big this intimate story feels: Ejiofor and DoP Dick Pope fill the screen with natural life and a sense of wider scale, and stakes, both from the arid landscape threatening famine in the background and glimpses of corrupt politicians, who refuse to tolerate people speaking out about the need for help and change.
The whole film is underscored by a sense of the difficulty involved in introducing a radical change to the status quo, and emerges as a tribute to those who manage to do so. The script, by Ejiofor, plods a little in its pacing, but its unabashed heart is earnest enough to keep you rooting for wind-harnessing to happen. As, finally, pieces of metal are chopped up, wires are twisted together, and blades spin in the breeze, this diminutive crowdpleaser is ultimately buoyed by a feeling of triumph, not only for William’s achievement in itself, but for one generation recognising that the next generation can surpass them. As a celebration of knowledge, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is an inspiring piece of low-key cinema – as a family drama about a father learning to trust his son, it’s electric.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.