If you scored a thousand Naira for every time the f… word was uttered in Heaven’s Hell, the long gestating debut feature length by former reality television star, Katung Aduwak, the end of the film should fetch you a tidy sum. It is the go-to curse word for the self-absorbed upper-class folks who people the affluent world created by Uyai Ikpe-Etim, Tenyin Ikpe-Etim and Aduwak himself.
Damilola Adegbite drawls it as she perfects her sensual seduction act, Bimbo Akintola screams it out in a moment of justified rage, one that will have her destroy everything she has learnt to care for. And Nse Ikpe-Etims mutters it when she comes to appreciate the hopelessness of her situation.
If you think that you have stumbled upon some R-rated goodness on account of this, think again as censors board issues must have been responsible for Heaven’s Hell’s failure to follow up with very adult commitments. For the film’s sole consensual sex scene, two shadows mimic an office tryst that is as chaste as can be and in the rape scene that follows, the perpetrator makes sure to cover any hint of nakedness before proceeding with his violation.
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The women living in Heaven’s Hell are liberated, at least from a financial point of view, existing in well appointed, luxurious digs. They are either married to money, come from money, work with money, or are friends with money. None of them is happy, none is fulfilled and at least one of them is going to murder her husband before the film ends.
What would make a woman who seemingly has everything descend to such depths? Aduwak’s Heaven’s Hell– which unfortunately might have been a big deal had it landed in cinemas around 2014 when it was initially announced- does a good enough job of placing a red herring in the story of the picture-perfect marriage of Alice (Nse Ikpe Etim) and Edward Henshaw (Fabian Adeoye Lojede.)
Alice is obviously troubled, what with her erratic mood swings, chain smoking habit and tendency to self-harm. Her situation bothers her hubby so much so that he intends taking an early retirement to help her battle her demons. In so doing, Edward leaves the very profitable law firm he founded in the capable hands of his protégé, Jeff Aliu (Chet Anekwe), a buff lothario whose charming smile and mastery of the game barely cover a mean streak.
The union between Jeff and Tsola (Akintola) is stretched to breaking point when a new man-eating intern, Janet (Adegbite) decides she wants to become wifey number three to the already much married Jeff. In a boldly dramatic scene at an office celebratory party, Janet makes her intentions known to Tsola who never quite recovers from this piece of information.
Heaven’s Hell could have been a decent film if Aduwak had had the guts to divvy up the two narratives at the core of the story and follow just one of them to a logical conclusion. The Alius particularly have a riveting angle and a focus on the dynamic between these four characters- making room for Adegbite’s Janet as well as Jeff’s ex-wife, Tara played unfortunately as a nagging foil by Katherine Obiang- would have made a much more compelling psychological drama.
Lumping the two narratives might also have made better sense in the hands of a filmmaker with the sensibility to cut out the shrill and zero in on the heart of the matter. First timer Aduwak who has made a couple of music videos prior to shooting Heaven’s Hell is not the person. What he has done instead is squeeze a made for television event into a theatrical format. It is an ugly fit that promptly explodes once the seams can no longer hold.
There are interesting ideas embedded within Heaven’s Hell (apparently based on a true story,) as directed by Aduwak and some of them include the helplessness that surrounds mental health issues in this part of the world, the humanistic tendency to self-destruct when faced with a compound challenge and the interesting dynamics that exist in female relationships but Aduwak and his writing team have no idea what to make of any of them. They settle instead for cheap thrills and a taste for camp, handling the material as carelessly as possible.
For what its worth, the actors appear to be sold on the project and are quite game, working with little support from Aduwak whose editing and pacing choices constantly fail them, down to the very last inelegant scene. It is a solid cast that Aduwak gathers but the material has no way of matching their talent. As a result, Akintola and Ikpe-Etim, two of the finest actors to ever do it, struggle with the film’s manic energy. Anekwe and Lojede fare better but not by much.
It doesn’t help that the picture hasn’t aged well at all and production design finishings that must have looked splendid in 2014 merely seem dated in 2019. The final cut of Heaven’s Hell is a strange, dubious beast, laughable as a thriller and clumsy as drama. Neither heaven nor hell, but a tormented kind of purgatory.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.