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Half of a Yellow Sun is the kind of ambitious literary adaptation that wants it all kinds of ways, not all of them compatible. On the one hand, it offers a bluffer’s guide to the Nigerian civil war that briefly created the Republic of Biafra between 1967 and 1970, and on the other, a chance to see Thandie Newton wearing lovely period shifts, occasionally accessorized with colorful indigenous-patterned scarves. The long stretches where characters debate Marxist doctrine lie uneasily next to its soap-opera-style shenanigans where women weep over faithless men, sisters fall out with each other, mothers-in-law meddle, and heavy artillery disrupts a picturesque wedding, although admittedly that last bit is one of the film’s best scenes.
Granted, the intersection of the personal with the political is the key point of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s well-regarded source novel, but first-time writer-director Biyi Bandele hasn’t managed to sand down the joins quite finely enough.
Politely but not especially enthusiastically received in Toronto, Yellow Sun will continue to attract festival programmers drawn to its exotic African setting, epic-on-a-budget production values, and name cast (especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, currently packing serious awards heat for 12 Years a Slave). However, the film will need imaginative marketing by potential distributors to maximize its assets and tap potential niches in select territories.
Readers who were impressed by the novel’s inventive shuffling of different time periods might be the folks who are most critical of the way Bandele’s script reorders the story into an accessible but banal chronological trudge, starting in 1960 and ending with the resolution of the war in 1970. Likewise, where the book refracted the action through the eyes of very different characters, including an Englishman and a servant boy, there’s never any doubt that the film is mostly interested in the ups and downs of Olanna (Newton). She’s a soigne rich girl from one of Lagos’ wealthiest families who chooses to defy familial expectations and convention not only by becoming a sociology professor herself, but also by shacking up with firebrand academic Odenigbo (Ejiofor) in college town Nsukka.
Although Olanna and Odenigbo share a passion for undoing the shackles of Nigeria’s colonial legacy and each other’s clothes, things get rocky when Odenigbo’s battle-ax mother (Onyeka Onwenu) comes to visit. An uneducated village woman with a nasty, scheming streak, Mama is determined to split up the cerebral lovebirds up any way she can, and nearly succeeds.
Meanwhile, a B-plot follows, with considerably less commitment: the relationship between Olanna’s more pragmatic but equally beautiful twin sister, Kainene (an underused Anika Noni Rose, best known for her theater work and the film version of Dreamgirls), and white English novelist manque Richard (Joseph Mawle, from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Off to the side, literally, Odenigbo’s manservant Ugwu (John Boyega, Attack the Block) observes the romantic pushing and shoving from a bemused distance. Unlike in the book, where his point of view has near equal weight with Olanna’s and Odenigbo’s, he has relatively little to do here apart from fretting over how to cook rice properly and later getting into danger.
Inevitably, given how much information has to be relayed for the benefit of viewers unfamiliar with recent Nigerian history and the complexities of inter-tribal relations, the script is studded with great leaden lumps of expository dialogue, while garlands of black-and-white newsreel footage further drape the backstory. The effect is curiously old-fashioned, an impression enhanced by the use of maps to show how the characters are shifting about the country, from one city to another.
Bandele, a Nigerian native who has worked mainly in theater hitherto, has a surer touch in creating atmosphere in the domestic scenes, evoking a strong sense of how these people live their lives day-to-day, and how devastated they are when war and all its atrocities rip that fabric apart. Indeed, the big action scenes are appropriately shocking, energetic and wallop-packing. Throughout, the period details are consistently on the money, from the clingy European cut of the wealthy women’s dresses to the background music, the latter a pleasing mix of Afro pop from the likes of Miriam Makeba and American ditties like “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt.
The young director’s touch is a little less assured with the actors, who are fine but not at their very best here. Newton gives good hysteria, but her Olanna occasionally grates with her princessy airs and isn’t always entirely sympathetic. In some ways the best work is to be found in the supports, especially Mawle as the guilt-ridden outsider, Rose as the sharp-tongued Kainene, and Onwenu as the fabulously hissable Mama.
Production: A Slate Films production in association with Ealing Metro International, Lipsync Prods., Kachifo
Cast: Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anika Noni Rose, Joseph Mawle, John Boyega, Onyeka Onwenu
Director: Biyi Bandele
Screenwriter: Biyi Bandele, based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Producer: Andrea Calderwood
Executive producers: Yewande Sadiku, Muhtar Bakare, Gail Egan, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden
Director of photography: John De Borman
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costume designer: Jo Katsaras
Editor: Chris Gill
Music: Ben Onono, Paul Thomson
Sales: Metro International Entertainment
No rating, 106 minutes
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