The First Grader tells the real-life story of Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, who was the oldest person ever to start primary school. When the Kenyan government promises free education for all, 84 year old Maruge (Litondo) makes his way to the local primary school, as he longs to be able to read and write. With the school already overflowing with young children and nowhere near enough desk space for them all, at first he is not allowed in; but his persistence finally wins the heart of the school’s kindly headmistress Jane (Harris). However, despite being an old Mau Mau warrior and fighting for the liberation of his country from British colonisation in the 1950s, Maruge comes up against enormous public disapproval for attending a children’s primary school, even though all he wants is to be able to read like everybody else.
Justin Chadwick, best known for directing The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), is certainly a highly skilled filmmaker. He captures the barren, dusty-golden Kenyan landscapes beautifully, and the various flashbacks of Maruge’s experiences in the Mau Mau uprising are tense and often uncomfortable to watch – look out for the scene involving a pencil – even though the violence he was subjected to is mostly implied rather than actually seen.
The scenes in the classroom are a joy to watch, and the genuine energy and enthusiasm of the young children (all non-actors) who are so eager to learn is infectious and heart-warming. Naomie Harris, AKA Miss Moneypenny in Bond 23, has a lovely onscreen presence and warmth; her performance as everyone’s favourite teacher is so believable that you almost wish you could have had her as your first teacher. Oliver Litondo’s performance is equally as impressive as the world-weary Maruge, whose desire to learn is so strong that he makes his own school uniform and he simply will not give up despite all the criticism that is unjustly thrown at him.
Despite skilled direction, a strong cast and such an inspirational story, it’s a shame that The First Grader isn’t as moving as it ought to be. The film’s interesting premise is made even more intriguing by the fact that it’s a true story, with such a positive message about the power of education and the need to make it available to all who are willing to learn, no matter how old. The film just never seems to gather enough momentum, and, even though this is the story of Maruge’s experience at school, more detail into the long life he has already lived would have been welcome. If Chadwick had given us greater insight into both the physical and emotional torture he was subjected to while fighting for the liberation of Kenya, then the anger we feel at those who feel that Maruge is not entitled to an education would be greater, and so the emotional wallop at the film’s climax would also have been greater.
There are a couple of subplots that would have benefited from being a bit meatier, as they never lead anywhere. The threats Maruge and Jane receive from angry locals never come to dramatic fruition; both Jane and her husband Charles (Kgoroge) receive threats on the phone. But Charles’s character is so thinly drawn and frankly unnecessary that it’s difficult to care about their relationship. There’s also one young child who is struggling at school whose father seems abusive and is particularly angered by Maruge’s presence at his son’s school, but this doesn’t go anywhere either and it would have been interesting if Maruge had formed a special friendship with the boy.
All in all, despite its flaws, The First Grader is an uplifting true story about one man’s determination, both in his past and in his present. Maruge and Jane are both extremely inspirational people, and it’s lovely to see such genuine energy and enthusiasm in a school classroom. It’s a shame that Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock have skimmed over certain elements of Maruge’s history and made poor use of some of the characters around him; for a story that had Hollywood written all over it, the result is just not as poignant or as Oscar-worthy as it could have been.
DVD extras include a three minute documentary about the real Kimani Maruge and his visit to New York in 2005, and a lengthy selection of interviews with Jason Chadwick, Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris and the film’s producers. While both are insightful, it would have been amazing to have seen a much longer piece about the real Maruge – three minutes is not enough! The cast and crew interviews are constantly and annoyingly interrupted by title cards – “Justin Chadwick on working with the children” etc. – and would have benefited from being continuous rather than so fragmented. Having said that, it was good to hear about everyone’s passion for the project and the wonderful experiences they had whilst filming.
The First Grader is out on DVD on the 17th October. You can order your copy here.