fri 01/03/2024

The First Grader | reviews, news & interviews

The First Grader

The First Grader

A moving if slightly too heartwarming paean to education

In 'The First Grader' Oliver Litondo plays Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, freedom fighter turned primary school pupil

The adult craving for education isn't a well that film-makers visit often. Educating Rita gave Willy Russell his finest cinematic hour. Say what you like about Kate Winslet’s concentration camp guard in The Reader, but such was her love of a good book at least she learned to read.

The First Grader, set in the dusty Kenyan outback, revisits the subject, but there all similarities stop. It tells the true story of a one-time freedom fighter who in 2003 arrived at his local school demanding to take up the government’s offer of free primary education. Unlike most new students, Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge was a mature pupil. At the age of 84, exceptionally mature.

Indeed, he has entered the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest person ever to embark on an education. Thus in The First Grader he finds himself surrounded by an army of small uniformed children, most of them quicker learners, all of them more suited to wearing shorts. As dramatised in Justin Chadwick’s film, Maruge’s dogged determination to get himself a basic schooling hits the brick wall of establishment opposition. Teachers and educational administrators, egged on by a parent or two, are set hard against the absurdity of an octogenarian taking up a precious school place in the village. Not that there seems to be an issue with class size. The large open-plan schoolroom teems with children of every age, all hollering answers in unison to their teacher like some junior Greek chorus.

The-First-Grader_320Maruge’s only supporter is the class teacher, a young woman called Jane Obinchu - in real life she was rather older but a pragmatic decision was taken to cast Naomie Harris. She and Oliver Litondo (pictured right with Harris) as Maruge make for a strangely matching pair of leads. Both invest their characters with lashings of dignity – perhaps a little too much in a story which could do with more shade. Harris plays Jane as a kindly figure bristling with pugnacity and oozing quiet charisma. Litondo’s, meanwhile, is a well-delineated study in silent pride and humility.

If there is shading to be found it is in Maruge's flashes of incandescence. “Uhuru [freedom]!” he encourages his fellow pupils to chant – because he is, of course, as much a professor in the university of life as a first grader in literacy. The cause of his righteous wrath is not just the pro forma political opposition to his schooling. He is more deeply scarred by his treatment as a member of the Mau Mau who fought a guerrilla campaign against colonial occupants (the Brits, naturally, although they are more namechecked than actually portrayed). Maruge’s memories are flagged up in flashbacks depicting, among other horrors, the murder of his family. It emerges that he needs to learn to read in order to decipher for himself a letter in his possession (not, as the real Maruge says in the interview below, the Bible). The contents of the letter remain opaque until the very moving climax.

Interview with the real Maruge

This is different territory from Chadwick’s last cinematic outing directing Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl. Unlike that much more tempestuous portrait of political chicanery, this has the simple linearity of a three-act parable. As shot by Rob Hardy, it also looks beautiful. The schoolchildren play themselves to the hilt. If The First Grader warms the heart without fully triumphing as drama, it’s because it stops only just short of beatifying its principals.

Watch the trailer for The First Grader

Maruge has entered the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest person ever to embark on an education

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