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8 October 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:07pm

Beasts of No Nation reminds us of fates worse than death

Cary Fukunaga's latest film is fiercely loyal to the perspective of its young protagonist as he negotiates the horrors of war.

By Ryan Gilbey

The first image in Beasts of No Nation is unprecedented in cinema: the word “Net­flix” glowing defiantly in tall, red letters. The second is a visual gag not unrelated to the first. Some African children are playing in a field, the scene enclosed within a small, black rectangle. Then it is revealed that the frame through which we have been watching them is actually a television set with the glass removed. As the camera pulls back, the smaller rectangle is dwarfed by the landscape and the superior canvas of the cinema screen. The message, which seems rather off-message for a streaming service, is that watching this on television can only truncate the bigger picture.

In the first deal of its kind, Netflix bought worldwide rights to the movie and is releasing it in cinemas a week before it starts streaming. The company isn’t the only component here with a strong connection to television. The film’s director, Cary Fukunaga, who also wrote the screenplay, has enjoyed his biggest success with the HBO series True Detective. And though the British actor Idris Elba has had plenty of film roles, he hasn’t made the decisive impression in cinema that he did on TV in The Wire and Luther. Until now.

He plays the Commandant, a warlord with a smile like the first prize in a raffle. He believes himself elegant. Rejecting the wrong choice of weapon handed to him to kill a man, he could be a golfer refusing an iron from his caddy. When something takes his fancy, be it equipment salvaged from a roadside ambush or a pliable boy placed under his command, he announces his approval with an indulgent purr better suited to sampling the perfect cocktail.

The Commandant is leading children and adolescents on a rebel campaign through the jungles of an unspecified African country. (The film was shot in Ghana with an unsentimental eye.) From a distance, they look like they might not be soldiers at all. In their patchwork outfits – garish fabrics, woolly hats and foliage – they resemble a fancy-dress parade, at least until they produce from nowhere a machete, an AK-47 or a bag of hallucinogenics. If they’re high, the cinematography sometimes gets high with them: in one scene, the jungle is drenched in steely blues and scarlets. Even when they’re sober, the images are saturated with colour. Shanty towns and brothels are spruced up by the gods of lighting design. It’s amazing what a shaft of celestial illumination or a few lime and amber gels can do to a place.

This suits the film’s child’s-eye view. Like Uzodinma Iweala’s original novel, Beasts of No Nation is told from the perspective of the 12-year-old Agu (Abraham Attah), whose T-shirt slogan (“Stay cool”) seems to mock the escalating horrors. His mother and younger siblings have escaped after a military uprising swept through their village. His father and brother were less lucky. He is alone in the world when he is seized by snarling imps who punch him, stamp on him and press-gang him into joining the Commandant’s ragtag army.

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What follows is characterised by some predictable beats: Agu’s initial fear and trepidation, his tearful first kill and ensuing collapse, the friendship with a fellow soldier that preserves his inner humanity, the chaos when power shifts at the top of the chain of command. There is a particular thrust to the child-soldier story familiar from films such as Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog or even Fukunaga’s debut, Sin Nombre, in which childhood was no barrier to membership of a brutal Mexican gang.

The movie is distinguished by its fierce loyalty to Agu’s point of view. The camera stays mostly at his level and we rarely understand more about the political strife than he would. In an allusion to Paths of Glory, another film about the chasm between the decision-makers and the grunts, there is a version of Stanley Kubrick’s tracking shot along the trenches; in this case, Agu plodding through carrot-coloured water with a colander-sized helmet on his head. Only in the speech he delivers near the end do we hear the voice of the screenwriters rather than a 12-year-old who has been an executioner before he has even learned to shave. Agu survives: we know that from his narration. The picture reminds us, though, that there are fates worse than death.

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis