Director: Cary Fukunaga
Cast: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Richard Pepple
Spoilers Within: No
Originally posted 13th July 2016 on Letterboxd.
Film 2 – #9 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
If you’ve read any of my past reviews that specifically deal with child actors, you’ll know that – through no fault of their own – an abysmal performance can unravel the whole thing for me (see: The Witch, Goodnight Mommy, most contemporary horror). A child can’t be entirely (or sometimes at all) to blame, but as with acting of any age, poor acting is hard to overlook.
Abraham Attah is the opposite of this, and I’m both surprised and not surprised to learn that this was his first role of any kind. He’s absolutely marvellous as the cherubic scamp Agu; with such commanding screen presence for someone so young, especially in the company of those as imposing as Idris Elba (who is also fantastic here). Keeping his character sympathetic throughout his ferociousness is not cheaply done nor emotionally manipulative on the part of the filmmakers, but rather much more genuine: matching Agu’s sympathy with cruelty and brutishness is no easy thing for any actor, but Attah pulls it off with natural ease. His arc from carefree rascal to tormented youth via militia puppet is one of the most fully accomplished in recent years.
Uzodinma Iweala’s novel and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s screenplay chose to follow the best character, allowing us to see a civil war through a child’s eyes, but through the lens of our adult beliefs and biases. It’s something that has been touched upon many times, but rarely with this much elegance; it’s both beautiful and hideous all at once. The first thing that struck me is just how gorgeous the cinematography is: opening with a shot of a group of giddy children around a hollowed out television, it’s easy to visualise the preciseness with which Fukunaga will frame each moment, and he doesn’t disappoint. The vivid colour schemes on show in both the modest villages and the vibrant jungles are wonderful to look at and create a fantastic juxtaposition with the horrors seen through Agu’s naive character. Controversy aside, the kaleidoscopic drug sequence adds an extra layer of ugly beauty to a film already filled with it, and these creative risks lend a sense of fluidity to the poetic nature of the story and the camera.
Oftentimes disturbing, harrowing and sobering, Beasts of No Nation is not an easy watch, but it’s a damned beautiful one. There’s a rawness to its approach in displaying this unfamiliar – but very real – war, and by having such a fantastic new face in Attah lead us through it, we get to experience a whole new outlook. I look forward to Fukunaga’s next project, but it’s Attah I’m more excited to see again.