Beasts of No Nation review: Netflix makes a visceral start in the movie business

Idris Elba wafts malign charisma, but for all the murky brilliance on display, Cary Fukunaga’s story of African child soldiers ultimately suffers from a lack of context

Beasts of No Nation
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Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye, Abraham Attah
Running Time: 2 hrs 16 mins

There is every chance that Cary Fukanaga's fetid, disturbing study of child soldiers in an unnamed African nation is well suited to theatrical exhibition. The director of Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre (also his own cinematographer) works had at filling the widescreen image with sly, asymmetric compositions. Dan Romer's music deals in the sorts of throbs that enjoy being relayed by big speakers. Unfortunately, Netflix, which has bought Beasts of No Nations for worldwide distribution, have chosen not release the film in cinemas outside the US and the UK. We must, thus, make guesses while squinting at our laptops and our smart TVs.

Abraham Attah plays Agu, a young boy who, after idyllic opening gambols among a happy family, gets abducted by wayward guerrillas and pressed into violent service. His predictably appalling induction culminates with a scene in which he is forced to hack at an apparently blameless construction worker’s head with a ragged machete.

“You know melon?” his Commandant asks. “This is not melon. It’s hard.” Later, he is persuaded to take hallucinogens and encouraged to pillage all that remains after mindless assaults.

Idris Elba wafts malign charisma as the Commandant. It’s impossible not to think of Fagin when contemplating the awful exploitation of childhood and, if Victorian historians are to be believed, his unapologetic wretchedness better represents Fagin’s inspirations than Dickens’s more sentimental version.


We learn little of the Commandant’s own background, but the unavoidable conclusion is that he began life a little like Agu. The hero’s eyes deaden and his conversation clogs as the horrors pile up.

For all the murky brilliance on display, Beasts of No Nation suffers for its lack of political and sociological context. One quick glimpse of a single white face passing in a Land Rover reminds us that Fukanaga – working from a psychologically dense novel by Uzodinma Iweala – has not taken the cheap option of offering us a "western perspective".

Well done. Some small unpacking of the rebels’ motivation would, however, be helpful. This is a film of magnificent scenes (consider, for instance, the drug-fuelled battle in during which all the reds are freakily highlighted) that fail to form any coherent shape. Terrible things happen and then they stop happening. That’s not quite enough.

- Beasts of No Nation is available to stream now on Netflix

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist