The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind


Happy happy joy joy.

 (2019) Biographical Drama (NetflixChiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Felix Lemburo, Robert Agengo, Fiskan Makawa, Lily Banda, Aissa Maiga, Fredrick Lukhere, Hestingzi Phiri, Rophium Banda, Philbert Falakeza, Samson Kambalu, Raymond Ofula, Noma Dumezweni, Lemogang Tsipa, Joseph Marcell, Martin Githinji, Melvin Alusa, Amos Chimpokoser, Edwin Chonde, Hilda Phiri. Directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor

 

We Americans often romanticize Africa as a place of glorious vistas and wonderful animals. Or, we demonize it as a place of corrupt governments and tribal genocide. Both of those viewpoints are incomplete; Africa is so much more. It is modern cities, but it is also small villages of subsistence farmers that are literally like living in another century.

This true story is based on the life of William Kamkwamba (Simba), a young boy with a knack for mechanical things who lives in a rural village in Malawi in abject poverty. His father Trywell (Ejiofor) faces drought and flooding, brought on when a neighboring farm sells to a tobacco company who promptly cut down all the trees whose roots held back flooding in the village with predictable results. The family was already living on the edge; now with most of their food supply destroyed and with no income from selling what they didn’t consume, things get desperate – William’s intelligent sister (Banda) is forced to withdraw from college and face a life of marriage and child-rearing, a life her mom (Maiga) knew would be a waste of her daughter’s potential. They also can’t afford the tuition at William’s school; however, he arranges with a teacher – blackmails, more like – to get access to the school library.

But William has an idea – a windmill to draw water from the village well to irrigate their farms. William has little to work with and his father, beaten down by all the obstacles he has failed to overcome, has little confidence that William’s idea will work and is unwilling to give up the bicycle chain that is crucial to the success of the windmill. The stakes couldn’t be higher for William and his family; could his knowledge of science and engineering overcome his father’s prejudices?

This is the first feature as a writer and director for Ejiofor and it’s a pretty good one. He captures all the tribulations faced by tribal villages in Africa, from political turmoil to environmental challenges to their own superstitions and traditions. That the real William Kamkwamba was able to overcome these things as a middle school-aged boy is nothing short of miraculous (today he is in his early 30s as this is written and a college graduate who has appeared on The Daily Show as well as given TED talks). Ejiofor takes great care to develop the story, but at times is a bit too workmanlike; a good director knows the shorthand needed to keep their film from bogging down. Ejiofor will acquire this skill through practice, no doubt. There’s a lot good about the movie, and it is worth checking out if for no other reason for an educational standpoint but be aware that the film has some noticeable flaws.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the honesty of African village life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Although the payoff is inspiring, the lead-up is frustratingly over-developed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic concerns regarding poverty and starvation, but otherwise perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ejiofor filmed on location in Malawi; as he did not speak the native Chichewa language, he had to learn to speak it for his character.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: William and the Windmill
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Nose to Tail

The Hundred-Foot Journey


Helen Mirren serves up a treat.

Helen Mirren serves up a treat.

(2014) Dramedy (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc, Clement Sibony, Vincent Elbaz, Juhi Chawla, Alban Aumard, Shuna Lemoine, Antoine Blanquefort, Malcolm Granath, Abhijit Buddhisagar, Rohan Chand, Masood Akhtar, Arthur Mazet, Laetitia de Fombelle. Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Some directors have an abiding patience for place and story. They allow the tale to unfold onscreen naturally, never or at least rarely forcing the action and allowing things to happen organically, giving the film a richness that comes from life’s own richness. Few directors possess such patience and trust. Lasse Halstrom is such a director.

In a small French village (mainly Castelnau-de-Levis but also Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, both in the Tarn region) there is a restaurant with a single Michelin star presided over by the iron-willed widow Madame Mallory (Mirren). Across the street is an abandoned and dilapidated former competitor which now stands empty. However, when an Indian family of restaurateurs, led by redoubtable patriarch Papa Kaddam (Puri) has their sketchy rented van break down in the village, she is distressed to discover that Papa has taken an interest in the vacant property and means to put in a new Indian restaurant.

At first she isn’t too impressed; after all, presidents have dined in her classical French establishment and the village may not be ready for the exotic spices, smells and sounds of the new Mumbai Maison. However, she didn’t reckon on Papa’s son Hassan (Dayal) being a tremendously talented but untrained chef. She also didn’t reckon on her sous chef Marguerite (Le Bon) falling for Hassan and lending him some books on French technique and recipes.

When the house is vandalized by French nationalists, one of whom working in her own kitchen, her attitude begins to soften a little bit. Eventually she recognizes that in Hassan she has found an amazing talent, the sort that could win her restaurant a second Michelin star. However, if she woos him away from his family and if he is as successful with her as she suspects he will be, undoubtedly world class Parisian restaurants will come calling and will Hassan be able to survive everything that goes with being a rock star chef in Paris?

Halstrom has crafted a movie in many ways not unlike his 2000 similarly-set film Chocolat in that it is about culinary talents in a bucolic French village with a romance taking place between two young people from completely different worlds. On the surface it may seem that this movie is about the preparation of food – it actually isn’t and to underscore this, about a third of the way through the movie Hassan discusses with Marguerite the mastery of five basic French sauces including Hollandaise which he asserts is made with olive oil. The sauce is actually made with egg yolks, butter, a bit of lemon juice and white pepper. Although this is a detail only a foodie or food industry professional might know, it’s the kind of detail that a movie obsessed with the preparation of food would get right.

Instead, the movie – based on a novel by Richard C. Morais – uses food as a metaphor. Meals are memories, asserts Hassan, reminding us of places and times in our lives. Good food can take us back to childhood, to magical moments of our youth, to family meals long after the family has scattered to the four winds. He’s not wrong on that score.

But whereas the mercurial and rigid Madame Malory is stuck on the same cuisine and in doing so, stuck on that single Michelin star (she dreams of being awarded a second), it isn’t until the passionate Hassan enters the picture melding French techniques and recipes with Indian spices and techniques that the restaurant flowers and approaches that lofty mark.

And in Hassan’s case, his love for French technique and cuisine is symbolized by his love for the French sous chef, as his passion for his heritage cuisine is symbolized by his love for his father and family. Close to both of his inspirations – Marguerite and Papa – his imagination and creativity are inspired. Taken away from both, his passion is drained from him. His success becomes empty because his food has become hollow.

 

Mirren is one of the finest actresses in the world and any chance to see her should be taken without hesitation. However, American audiences may be less familiar with Puri who is as revered in his home country as Mirren is here, and he is one of those actors who fills every role he plays with humanity and gentle humor. He is truly a treasure.

Unlike the first two movies in our Films for Foodies series, you won’t necessarily be hungry for French or Indian food when you leave the theater, although I have to admit a nice samosa wouldn’t be a bad thing at all right about now. However, this is a movie with a great deal of heart and a story told with a gentle touch. This is a village you’ll want to live in and restaurants you’ll want to dine in and more importantly, people you’ll want to spend time with. As slices of life go, this is a particularly delectable morsel.

REASONS TO GO: Gently paced. Lots of heart. A place you’ll want to stay in and people you’ll want to hang out with. Mirren and Puri are treasures.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit less about food than the logline would lead you to believe. A bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of violence, a distressing scene involving a personal tragedy, mild language and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dayal is of Indian descent, he was actually born in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Le Chef

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Into the Storm