Winning a gubernatorial election in Nigeria is tough, but for an honest person like Hankuri Philips, the lead character in Omoni Oboli’s Love is War (now streaming on Netflix), there are higher odds of a camel passing through the proverbial needle’s eye. Hankuri (played by Oboli) is contesting the top seat in Ondo state, but there is a little problem, she is from Niger. More problems: Her only opponent is her husband, Dimeji Phillips (Richard Mofe-Damijo), a medical doctor and Ondo’s favorite son. This premise is promising, but the execution — in writing and directing — falls short.
The script is from Naz Onuzo, who has a thing for intricate storylines, exciting ideas that come out problematic (The Arbitration) or messy (Out of Luck). An exception in his oeuvre is the remarkable The Set Up, a plot-driven screenplay Niyi Akinmolayan (Chief Daddy) engineered into a smart ride. Onuzo’s latest, Love is War, is billed as a dramedy, but its true potential lies as a political thriller.
The film journeys through the muddy waters of Nigeria’s politics with a feminist lens. Hankuri has been handpicked by the President to run for Governor under the PPM party. She starts her campaign by lobbying support from essential party members, but the men all seek her submission: In one scene, the incumbent Governor of Ondo (Akin Lewis) demands she and a female senator bow to greet him. Hankuri is not the submissive type, but she quickly learns the game of politics. When Otunba (Jide Kosoko), one of her party’s big players, demands excessively, she connives with a bigger power — the incumbent Governor — to sideline him. Nipped by this, Otunba invents a diabolical plan to get back at Mrs. Phillips and his former party — he conspires with the opposition to tempt her husband into running against her. If Dimeji declines, the narrative will be that Hankuri is a selfish, power-hungry woman who won’t let her husband shine. If he accepts, he risks going to war with the love of his life. Either way, the couple suffers.
After consulting with his wife, Dimeji agrees to contest against her, but there’s a twist: He isn’t going to campaign, he will be her Trojan horse. But what the naïve couple failed to realize is that in Nigerian politics the party wins the election, not the candidate. As their campaigns heat up, Dimeji is forced into a bitter battle with his wife. His party and the media chip at his ego regularly. He starts to feel lesser than her, and during an argument, he tells her, “certainly I’m allowed to maintain my dignity,” and walks out — from her presence and their friendly pact.
The most vital aspect of Love is War is its feminist undertone, both domestically and politically. There are not many films — in Hollywood and Nollywood — with ambitious women pursuing or holding powerful political positions. Lately, Nollywood has been correcting this problem. In 4th Republic, Kate Henshaw plays an upstanding woman running for Governor against a corrupt, misogynistic man who proposed marriage because her ‘stubbornness’ turns him on. King of Boys’ Eniola Salami lords over men. Love is War follows this trend with a feminist character that is ambitious, tender, and ruthless without coming off as crazy. When her husband and his team start playing foul, she tells her camp, “I want to crush him,” and then she justifiably goes on the offensive.
However, unlike its lead character and the two films mentioned above, Love is War doesn’t raise the stakes when its story demands. After Mrs. Phillips’s statement above, riots are purported to have followed, but the portrayal is lacking. Another surprising half-baked directorial decision is setting up minimalist campaign scenes. Campaign rallies in Nigeria are a grand affair; stadiums are filled, roads are shut. But what the film presents is best put as a parody. Oboil’s acting during the campaign trail also suffers — the charisma of a Nigerian politician is sorely missing. Mofe-Damijo is better in similar scenes, but even his performance is far from brilliant. It is the veterans, Lewis and Kosoko, who embody their politician roles expertly.
Love is War triumphs on its apt portrayal of Nigerian politics and the timeliness of its story, but the inconsistencies in performances and directing make it an average Nollywood drama when it could have been a terrific political thriller with a strong, feminist lead character. On a few occasions, the stage is set for more, but on all of them, Oboli succumbs to the challenge. There has always been a question mark over her directing abilities, but never in any movie have they seem this inadequate.