Pass mark, can do better
THEY say you’re never too old to learn.
And in the true story related by The First Grader, it seems old Kimani Nganga Maruge ( Oliver Litondo) heard them all too clearly.
This is why the former Kenyan freedom fighter thought it was high time he learnt to read and write.
After all, Kenya’s beleaguered government has been banging on about ‘‘ education for all’’. So who are they to stop Maruge from bettering himself?
Even if it results in the utterly bizarre ( though cinematically cute) sight of an 84- year- old dude taking his rightful place at a rural primary school.
Had The First Grader been set in the present day – Maruge took his first class less than a decade ago – this uneven and tonally uncertain picture might have fared better as a whole.
A jarring series of flashbacks to Maruge’s younger days during the messy political upheaval of the Mau Mau uprising feel like they belong to a tougher, more complex and ambitious film.
While these scenes do add vital context to the tale, and also the knotted tribal loyalties that hold back the development of Kenya as a nation, they also exhaust the viewer’s ability to appreciate the elderly Maruge’s quest.
The best stretches of The First Grader are anchored by a fine performance by Naomie Harris ( pictured). She plays Jane Obinchu, the young headmistress who faces the brunt of the local and national outcry against her prize student with dignity and vulnerability.
The oddly minimal stylings of Litondo as Maruge make much more sense when you realise he is a former TV newsreader having a belated go at acting.
Overall, The First Grader earns an honourable pass mark, but will leave many wondering if a better result could have been achieved.