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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

‘Fifty’ Review: Unmasked beauty, concealed chaos and sacrificed subtleties

The throng of bodies you saw pressed in quasi-order at the Cinemas during the holiday season were summoned by Fifty.
The Mo Abudu film has called more movie watchers to Cinemas across the country than Star Wars. A testament to the reach of Ms Abudu’s hype machinery, or the stellar assemblage of actors, or the growing domestic allure of Nigeria’s cultural production, or all of these combined.
Nse Ikpe Etim, Ireti Doyle, Mo Abudu, Omoni Oboli, Dakore Egbuson-Akande & Biyi Bandele
Nse Ikpe Etim, Ireti Doyle, Mo Abudu, Omoni Oboli, Dakore Egbuson-Akande & Biyi Bandele
For a country obsessed with all things foreign (toothpicks and pencils included), the period, from the early 2000s on, that marked the rising preference for locally produced movies and music, provides teachable moments for policy makers intent on shoring up domestic consumption. Where economics hollows out Nigeria’s claim to being the giant of Africa, culture accentuates her soft power. Thanks to movies like Fifty.
Fifty is an exploration of women in mid-life crises. This narrow description of course undermines its sweeping themes of love and betrayal, sexual abuse and infidelity, friendship and religion, all enacted by four principal characters. No, five. For Lagos is not just a passive backdrop where four complicated lives intersect, it’s an active participant, its elegance revealed in long shots that simultaneously unmask beauty and conceal chaos.
The first major glimpse of the city we get is of the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge, a sight we see in this movie repeatedly, unabashedly hinting at its upper-middle class preoccupations. Lagos, under director Biyi Bandele’s lens, is a sublime city emitting culture. We find neo-soul musician Nneka at Freedom Park and meet Femi Kuti at the African Shrine (the only time we stray into Olamide’s Mainland). Waje, Tiwa Savage and King Sunny Ade make casual appearances at a birthday bash on the Island. All in a space of one week. Fifty’s Lagos, like its women, is colorful and exciting.
There is a defiant portrayal of the leading women that is admirable. Elizabeth (Ireti Doyle) is a high-flying obstetrician we see first atop the tepid bidding at an art auction and then under her undergraduate lover, Sammy (Emmanuel Ikubese), several scenes later.
Scene from Fifty
Scene from Fifty
Tola (Dakore Egbuson-Akande) is a devil-as-boss reality TV star with a complicated marriage and a dark secret. Maria (Omoni Oboli) is a few minutes into her fiftieth birthday and pregnant for another woman’s husband. Kate (Nse Ikpe Etim) is an event planner caught between faith and science with a lump in her breast and a freeloading husband on her back. There are no apologies here, and no men pulling the strings. These women own their bodies and their means of production and deploy them as they deem fit. They are simultaneously in control and not; masters of their choices, and at the mercy of its consequences
There is so much to applaud in Fifty. The quartet of Ireti Doyle, Omoni Oboli, Nse Ikpe-Etim, and Dakore Egbuson-Akande are at the height of their powers.
Everybody shines. Ireti Doyle, risqué and dazzling, reminds us why much of Tinsel rides on her capacity. Wale Ojo, who plays the role of Kunle, Tola’s husband, dances with his demons to the edge of the cliff and off into burning passion. The acting is believable. The casting couldn’t have been better.
Tope Oshin Ogun, producer and casting director, fits even bit roles with huge talents and pedigree. We see Victor Laitan and Bimbo Manuel take just a scene each. And some of the movie’s most sublime moments come from some of its relatively minor characters; Chi Chi, Maria’s help, played effectively by Kemi Lala Akindoju, humming Silent Night when she suspects madam to be with child, and Tola’s gateman turning oga (Kunle) back in the dead of the night at madam’s instruction, is one of the most humorous scenes of the movie.
There is sufficient ambition here to make Fifty a great film. But we end up with a frustrating could-have-been, frustrating because Biyi Bandele, having all the ingredients that make for greatness, manages to fall short of it. Fifty wears its themes too tightly, and in this it scarcely departs from Nollywood’s penchant for the didactic, a non-problem, except where it sacrifices subtlety. Fifty had a checklist of themes and agendas and set out to tick them in our very before. One of the high points of the movie is the big discovery between Tola and her brother Jamal (Timini Egbuson), a potential heart-wrenching reveal so thinly sketched it leaves you feeling nothing. You leave Fifty feeling nothing, except bridled frustration at the squandered opportunity to turn this good movie into a great one.
Efe Paul Azino, a writer and poet is the author of For Broken Men Who Cross Often published by Farafina Books, and the director of the Lagos International Poetry Festival