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TELLURIDE, Colo. — Stories about inspiring teachers have tantalized moviemakers and movie audiences since the era of Mr. Chips and Miss Dove. The latest incarnation, The First Grader, proved to be one of the biggest crowd-pleasers at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. Although the arc of the story might be familiar, the setting and characters are fresh. Art house audiences are likely to discover and embrace the film.
First Grader is set in Kenya and recounts the true story of an 84-year-old farmer and former Mau Mau tribesman who decided to go to school when the country introduced universal education. Screenwriter Ann Peacock introduces Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an old man with a walking stick, as he approaches the new school in his village and asks to enroll. The school authorities are reluctant to admit an octogenarian alongside 6-year-olds, and we gradually learn there are tribal rivalries that also contribute to their suspicion of Maruge. Teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) is equally skeptical, but when she observes Maruge’s unyielding determination to learn to read, she becomes his ally, even as she alienates her husband and government authorities who are just as bureaucratically rigid in Kenya as in so many other societies.
The film paints a vivid picture of rural and urban Kenya — Maruge eventually travels to Nairobi to plead his case — and it also sketches some of the forgotten history of the country.
Flashbacks reveal that Maruge suffered in a British prison camp and even lost his family at the hands of the British occupying forces. His past makes it painfully ironic that he faces so much discrimination at the hands of his own countrymen.
Director Justin Chadwick — best known for his superb BBC miniseries adapted from Dickens’ Bleak House — insisted on filming on location, and he enlisted locals for most of the roles in the film. Working with cinematographer Rob Hardy, he brings the countryside alive and also provides fascinating insights into a forgotten chapter of British colonial history.
Scenes in the classroom are entertainingly vital, aided by the natural performances of the Kenyan children. But the film shares the failing of many other films about inspiring teachers: It asserts that Jane is a marvelous influence on her students but doesn’t succeed in dramatizing revelatory moments in the classroom that might change the course of a young person’s life.
Because the writing falls down in some of these scenes, it helps that Harris — a veteran of small British movies as well as the gargantuan Pirates of the Caribbean franchise — brings so much passion to her performance. She conveys Jane’s utter dedication while always leavening her performance with convincing moments of doubt and vulnerability. Litondo’s innate dignity is another major asset to the production. Chadwick strikes a perfect balance between humor and tragic gravity, and the result is that an unknown story seems certain to stir the hearts of audiences worldwide.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Cast: Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo, Tony Kgoroge, Shoki Mokgapa, Alfred Munyua, Vusi Kunene
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: Ann Peacock
Producers: Sam Feuer, Richard Harding, David M. Thompson
Executive producers: Norman Merry, Joe Oppenheimer, Anant Singh, Helena Spring
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Vittoria Sogno
Music: Alex Heffes
Costume designer: Sophie Oprisano
Editor: Paul Knight
No rating, 105 minutes
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