'Swallow': Should Kunle Afolayan rethink making non-actors leads? [Pulse Movie Review]

Star singer Niyola plays the lead role in the Kunle Afolayan directed film adaptation of Sefi Atta's 'Swallow' currently streaming on Netflix.

Temi Otedola versus Eniola Akimbo [Netflix]

Adaptations are a hard nut to crack any day for the many complications associated with bringing to life an already existing entity priory introduced to an audience.

With Kunle Afolayan's latest film 'Swallow', an adaptation of Sefi Atta's novel of the same title, my expectations were both high and low. High because if there is any Nollywood filmmaker with the resources, creative and otherwise, to make a decent period piece, it is Afolayan and low for the dilemma of Nigerian film production values.

Set in Lagos in the 80s, the film attempts to depict the vividly narrated tale of Atta's characters as they try to manoeuvre the realities of misogyny, corruption and poverty. For the lead role, Afolayan handpicks singer Eniola Akinbo aka Niyola, who save for music video features, has no formal or informal acting experience.

Over the years, Afolayan has experimented with casting non-actors in his movies. In last year's 'Citation', he ushered YouTuber and fashion influencer Temi Otedola into the world of make-believe.

Before Temi, there was music icon Angelique Kidjo in 'The CEO', Chidinma Ekile in 'The Bridge' and in 2019, he gave us Simi in 'Mokalik'. Overnight, what first seemed to be a strategic placement became a brand tag for the filmmaker.

But casting non-actors is not the problem here. It is the unfairness of thrusting them into roles that demand and deserve expertise that is a matter of concern. In 'Swallow' just like in 'Citation', Afolayan's choice of lead fatally cripples their characters leaving the supporting actors no choice but to hold the story together.

Like Moremi in 'Citation', Atta's Tolani Ajao is taciturn. Maybe this is the only part both Temi and Niyola deliver asides that the latter speaks better Yoruba. Otherwise, they pass off as beautifully propped mannequins necessary only to spice up the film as the real players navigate the plot.

I might be no fan of non-actors, influencers or whatever they are called these days, parading themselves as actors. But, I agree that willing novices can become. If Afolayan insists on baptising non-actors, he must do more than just give them scripts and roll the cameras. We want to see, no we demand to see that these stars have passed through the proverbial fire and are prepared for the roles that they undertake.

Away from Afolayan's problematic choice of lead, is 'Swallow' a good watch? Undoubtedly, Afolayan has a good eye for art direction and is an all round impeccable producer. In 'Swallow', he brandishes his expertise with the portrayal of the fashion, language and events (sometimes monotonous) of the era that the film is set.

The screenplay, on the other hand, barely does justice to the literary piece. Though supervised by Atta, 'Swallow' the film feels choppy, missing out on the juices that make the novel stand out.

Atta has an interestingly way of simplistically portraying her characters so that they unassumingly warm their way into the hearts of her readers. In 'Swallow', the female characters are intertwined by their unifying struggle to survive in a patriarchal society. These women are relatable and the realisation is poignant enough to spark the necessary humour or pathos in the readers.

While Afolayan visibly gives this adaptation his best shot, he succeeds at delivering uninteresting characters save for Rose played by Ijeoma Grace Agu.

Agu is a brilliant actor and is probably the best decision Afolayan made in 'Swallow'. As Rose, Agu is flawless, seductive, exciting, leaving no stone unturned. Agu is the reason 'Swallow' has a modicum of rewatch value and in saner industries, producers would be falling over themselves for a sprinkle of the magic which she effortlessly offers her characters.

'Swallow' is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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