Directed by: Biyi Bandele
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Joseph Mawle
Of all the egregious decisions during the colonial period, dividing a continent between competing powers simply by drawing lines on a map ranks fairly high. Nigeria was one of many countries to suffer, forcing several tribes together into an artificial state. Adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2007 Orange prize winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun does a good job of demonstrating the hope, chaos and suffering of an independence bid but can’t quite connect this to the travails of the main characters.
Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) are educated and urbane daughters of a prominent businessman, both out to create independent lives in newly independent Nigeria. Olanna sets out for Nsukka to teach at the university where her lover, the intellectual revolutionary Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), lives with his servant Ugwu (John Boyega). Kainene heads slightly further south to Port Harcourt to run part of the family business where she can also keep her relationship going with English writer Richard (Joseph Mawle) who met her at an independence party and quickly became besotted.
For a while, they continue with their lives. Focussing mainly on Olanna, she struggles to deal with her new life, particularly Odenigbo’s difficult mother (Onyeka Onwenu). But tension is clearly simmering close to the surface. Both sisters live in an area in the south east that becomes the centre of feuding violence between two tribes, before seceding to form the independent Republic of Biafra. Initially, the local reaction is jubilant as celebrating crowds come out onto the street. But the central government is not going to let this one go and soon they are on the back foot fighting a losing battle. The sisters get caught in the middle, struggling to survive amidst the disintegration of their previously safe lives.
Aiming for a state of the nation snapshot, director and writer Biyi Bandele pulls out all the stops to replicate 1960s Nigeria, and the impact and aftermath of Biafran independence. Music swirls as Biafra is portrayed as a doomed lover, at first drunk on the magic of the moment but unprepared for the results. Shot crisply, the camera sweeps out to establish time and place. Indiana Jones style graphics depict travels across the country with archive news footage sometimes unnecessarily filling in historical details.
The period design is authentically convincing throughout. It feels like the 1960s with cars, clothes and technology all ringing true. Backing this up, a decent cast do a decent job. No one excels but no one lets the side down. The exception is Onyeka Onwenu who hams it up too much at times, almost going swivel eyed with outrage as Odenigbo’s opinionated mother.
When the Civil war breaks out, it does so in shocking style. The violence is sudden and terrifying as innocents are executed and locals butchered in the streets. The gradual decline of their previously jubilant hopes amidst starvation, executions and explosions is depressingly authentic. Even traditionally joyful events turn sour. A wedding proves a day to remember for the wrong reasons, starting off well before falling apart under mortar fire.
While the war is consistently compelling, the same cannot be said about the personal lives of the two sisters which often feel disconnected from the wider events. There are individually strong moments as Olanna and Odenigbo row and make up, and an incredibly awkward dinner takes place between the sisters and Richard where secrets can only remain hidden for so long, but other attempts to stir emotions fall flat.
Too much attention is wasted on Olanna and Odenigbo sat in their parlour debating politics with friends. The scenes with Kainene shine much more brightly, but remain side-lined. Instead, a drinking problem is plucked out of nowhere and thrown at Odenigbo as an afterthought and Olanna switches between moods with such regularity that it’s impossible to understand what she is doing most of the time. Their servant Ugwu is also thrust into a perilous situation that fails to elicit any reaction after he’s remained underwritten for much of the film.
The end, when it comes, creeps up far too quickly leaving a frustrated sense of a story unfinished. To some extent, this is an accurate reflection of a country that still struggles with tribal splits, but within the frame of the narrative it all feels incomplete. While the broad story of Biafra is captured well, the intimate focus on the sisters’ experiences never feels truly authentic.
There is a lot to admire in Half of a Yellow Sun. Biafra’s struggle are compelling and distressing in equal measure, and Bandele captures that essence of doomed adventure. What he fails to do is link this to his characters, depriving the film of an emotional context. The end result is impressive only in parts.