The View London Review
By Matthew Turner
An enjoyable feel-good drama that pushes all the right buttons thanks to strong direction and terrific performances from Oliver Litondo and Naomie Harris, though it’s also entirely predictable and some scenes may be too strong for young children.
What’s it all about?
Directed by Justin Chadwick, The First Grader is based on a true story and set in Kenya in 2003. Oliver Litondo stars as 84-year-old village elder and ex-freedom-fighter Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, who decides to take advantage of a government free primary schooling initiative to gain the education he’s always wanted, prompted by the arrival of an important letter from the government that he’s unable to read.
Maruge duly presents himself at the gate of a school run by kindly Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) and her assistant Alfred (Alfred Munyua). After some initial resistance (Alfred insists Maruge must have a school uniform; Maruge turns up the next day in shorts, long socks and a shirt and tie), he’s allowed to join the school but his presence causes local and later national unrest, with seemingly only Jane prepared to fight his corner.
Oliver Litondo is superb, delivering a performance that is dignified, determined and quietly moving, while radiating warmth and humanity; his interactions with the children (especially a lame little girl and a boy who’s bullied by his strict father) are amongst the film’s highlights. Naomie Harris is equally good as Jane, generating strong chemistry with both Litondo and the children.
Chadwick’s direction is assured throughout, particularly during the schoolroom scenes, which have an authentic feel thanks to the use of a real school and its pupils. There’s also a lot of humour in the film, though some of the jokes are a little dodgy, for example a scene where Jane asks Maruge how he managed to control the kids and he replies that he threatened them with his stick, which would be a lot funnier if we hadn’t already seen Maruge use his stick to break up two fighting pupils in an earlier scene.
The main problem with the film is that it’s relentlessly predictable from beginning to end, to the point that every scene unfolds exactly as you’d expect. In addition, the brutal flashback sequences (to Maruge being tortured by the British in the 1960’s) may prove too strong for younger viewers.
This is a well-made feel-good drama that makes up for its predictability with strong direction, an emotionally engaging script and terrific performances from its two leads. Worth seeing.