Directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga
Starring Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Ama K. Aberese, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye
Netflix seem unafraid to explore the darker sides of world history in their original programming with series such as Marco Polo and Narcos, and recently their first feature film Beasts of No Nation took this a step further. Set in an unnamed African country, it follows the tale of young boy Agu (Abraham Attah) as he gets swept up in the civil war which engulfs the land.
It would have been very easy for director Cary Joji Fukanaga to weave an overly emotive film about the evils of men and the dangers of war, particularly since the film deals with child soldiers and brutal massacres, however the themes are dealt with in a much more human way. The army, traditionally the ‘good guys’, are seen as paranoid though well intentioned, the typical ‘visionary’ character is shown to be purely financially interested, and the Commandant (Idris Elba), the leader of the child army, is a genuinely dimensional character, acting as a father figure to these disillusioned orphans.
The script expertly juggles our emotions through the first act as we gradually empathise with these ‘evil’ characters, teaching us that their deeds are acts of desperation, not underlying evil. Unfortunately some plot choices in the middle of the second act and beyond initially diminish, and then outright confuse this otherwise ingenious narrative. The second half of the film begins to meander, with the ending drawn out in a wearying way. This reflects the character’s weariness at the war, but it would have been nice to see true character development in some of the supporting characters, or results to the initial plot which gets forgotten.
The acting throughout is fantastic, especially Abraham Attah’s portrayal of Agu as we visually see his change from the events he witnesses and the situation he finds himself in. His progression from charismatic boy, to rage-filled soldier, to weary veteran would have been impossible without serious talent on his part. It takes a while for the viewer to realise that it is actually Idris Elba playing one of the roles- the departure from his stern and imposing usual roles takes you by surprise, and the emotion that pours out of his character at moments of weakness completely justifies the Golden Globe nomination Elba received for the role. There are notable mentions in the supporting cast too, notably Preacher (Teibu Owusu Achcampong), a fellow soldier who can’t function without war, and Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), Agu’s best friend in the war.
Fukanaga delicately illustrates the intricacies of war, portraying the terrors of living in a war zone and the relatable motivations for joining a rebel faction, in a way that most works are loathe to do. He also takes a bold step in flowering his depressing work with small seeds of hope, questioning if war will really last forever?
Without the fantastic cast and clever script, these themes would not resonate as well as they do. Thankfully, coupled with the tasteful cinematography and detailed sound design, these make Beasts of No Nation a film that may horrify you with its stark themes, but a film you should see nonetheless.
Review by Tom Bedford