Film review: Half Of A Yellow Sun (15)

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FOR African audiences, Chim-amanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel Half Of A Yellow Sun is a cross between Gone With The Wind and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being: an enormously popular work of fiction that examines political upheaval through intimate relationships.

Half Of A Yellow Sun (15)

Half Of A Yellow Sun

Half Of A Yellow Sun

Director: Biyi Bandele

Running time: 111 minutes

Star rating: * * *

The book takes its title from the flag of Biafra, the short-lived republic which attempted to break away from Nigeria in 1967. The majority Hausa tribe sent in troops to crush this rebellion and the consequence was three years of war, ethnic cleansing, disease, starvation and an unknown death toll: maybe one million, maybe two, possibly more.

At the heart of the story are well-bred twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), who are first seen enjoying an opulent family dinner in Lagos, celebrating Nigeria’s independence from Britain with fine wines and the nation’s finance minister, a family friend. Like Nigeria, these women are independent and headstrong. Olanna gives up her socialite status to live with radical intellectual Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while Kainene becomes a businesswoman who falls for white married writer Richard (Joseph Mawle).

Behind the camera is first time director Biyi Bandele, who can make early 1960s Nigeria look as exotic as a James Bond location, but is also responsible for some stodgy, stagey sequences that either point up his theatre background, or suggest that time was running out during filming.

Bandele is also responsible for adapting and filleting Adichie’s tome into two hours, by throwing out subplots and subtexts and reorganising the book’s flashforwards and flashbacks into a straight-ahead narrative. Nuance and complexity are stripped out in the process. The book’s democratic sweep is reduced, and what we’re left with seems enormously taken with the destinies of the privileged. Apart from the women and their lovers, the only other character to register is Odenigbo’s houseboy Ugwu (John Boyega), and despite his rise from servant to socially aware writer, he doesn’t get much screen time unless he is agonising over his cooking technique.

Simplified characters turn this drama into a heavy-handed emotional manipulation of a story that might have worked better as a TV miniseries. However, it does improve when soapy personal trials such as dealing with disapproving mothers-in-law and unexpected, traumatic motherhood give way to a second hour of more urgent, gritty material. An abruptly curtailed wedding sequence is one of the movie’s standout moments, but perhaps the film’s real strength lies in its novelty. We hear few stories from Nigeria, and Half Of A Yellow Sun is a reasonable starting point, with a cast and sensibility geared towards a global market.

The film caught pelters from some quarters for this, especially the casting of biracial Newton as an Igbo woman, but she does fine work here, as do Ejiofor and Boyega, and the pragmatic may argue that if you make the most expensive movie ever shot in Nigeria, you have to give audiences and financiers some reassurance. Half Of A Yellow Sun deserves recognition for its ambition, tenacity and intentions, even it’s not quite a full throttle experience. n

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

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On general release

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