BFI London Film Festival: Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Starring Idris Elba and Abraham Attah

by Joanna Orland

Beasts of No Nation is a disturbing depiction of the plight of child soldiers in Africa, told from the perspective of a young boy named Agu.  The film is the first of Netflix’s original movies to stream on the site, and with its success in the festival circuit, it is immediately establishing Netflix as a contender in the film awards race.

Director Cary Fukunaga’s background in the bleak most recently comes from his work on season one of True Detective.  The slow-paced drama and focus on characters translates to his latest work Beasts of No Nation as the slow film remains steady as a harrowing portrait of life as a child soldier for Agu, alongside the charismatic and terrifying Commandant played by Idris Elba.  Elba’s performance is reminiscent of Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, although without any of the occasional dark humour and charm that Whitaker brought to his role.

Abraham Attah as the young Agu is quite the find, immediately establishing himself as a fine young talent.  Agu’s plight is heartbreaking and chilling as he’s forced into life as a child soldier after losing his family in civil war.  The film is told through his eyes as his narration threads the story together, revealing his inner thoughts after each pivotal moment.  The harshest of moments is his first kill, when Elba’s commander forces him to fully leave his childhood behind him.

The story is not just about these two characters or the horrors of war, it is primarily about the loss of innocence, particularly childhood innocence in war zones and impoverished areas.  The children are not only turned into brutalized killing machines, they are also given heroin to keep them fighting.  They become more vacant animals than they do adults as their childhoods are stripped from them, while Agu is all too aware that his childhood is lost forever, and will not return even if the war is to come to an end.

The slow pace, droning score, sedate feel and harrowing content make Beasts of No Nation a very heavy film to watch.  I personally didn’t fully engage with it, but I fully appreciate its story and performances.


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