Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation is a hard hitting drama that focuses on the conflicts that are an unfortunately regular feature throughout Africa and, indeed, many other countries across the world. A young boy, Agu (Abraham Attah) sees his family gunned down in front of him and escapes into the jungle. There he encounters a ragtag rebel group called the NDF, who are led by Idris Elba’s Commandant. Soon Agu is trained up as a soldier within this force. As the Commandant says on meeting him, a boy is not nothing – a boy can hold a gun, can be trained to kill.
It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of war. People die randomly and for no good reason, casualties of a war they would otherwise have no part in. Children are forced to engage in one dubious activity after another, such that the true horror of conflict and human nature is explored in all its ugly glory. The blatant subtext is that war is a terrible thing – something all of us in the civilised world have to agree on.
Beasts of No Nation is interesting in that this is a big budget film released through streaming service Netflix rather than via a full saturation release in cinemas. It did receive a limited cinematic run thanks to the major distributors boycotting it. It’s an interesting shift in the direction of the industry, especially given the mega bucks that Netflix commands from its subscription model.
Personally I’m not against this approach – apart from the fact this is straight onto Netflix rather than DVD, it’s not something the industry has only just introduced.
In fact most new films are sent immediately to home release, with only those films that have a decent release budget behind them (or perhaps a billionaire oligarch) having the luxury of a big screen release. As far as I’m concerned the more options available for releasing your film, the better. Netflix is just one content provider amongst several, and it just means we the consumers are the winners overall.
In terms of performances, everything about Beasts of No Nation is a winner. Idris Elba is typically reliable as the Commandant, an imposing figure who has a dubious moral position. Attah is incredibly good as Agu, a perfect example of a child actor who seems to be older than his years. He fully embodies the role and, had there been no familiar faces in the cast such as Elba, you may have quite easily confused the plot with a documentary.
The setting in Ghana too becomes a character in of itself. The locations are gorgeous to look at in spite of the death and destruction that is put in front of us, and further embeds the “it might be a documentary!” thought process. It’s a shame that it likely won’t get huge awards acclaim due to its distribution model, but it unveils another narrative strand that has as yet been untapped until now.