Odenigbo (12 Years a Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Olanna (Thandie Newton) are sat in uncomfortable silence at the dinner table before the quiet is pierced by a question: “Are we still trying to have a child?” This stuffy, uneasy scene – furnished with dialogue awkward and laboured – is regrettably Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) in microcosm. Based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adicie’s novel of the same name, Biyi Bandele’s stuttering directorial debut is a valiant attempt to navigate a tumultuous period in Nigerian history, but not an enormously successful one. An uneven blend of melodrama and the horrors of civil war, it should be anchored by strong leads but instead remains listless and adrift.
Olanna and her sister, Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), are two confident, intelligent young women looking to forge their own way in the Nigeria of the 1960s. After returning from their western educations, they both fly the family coop with Olanna heading into academia – and the arms of professor and activist, Odenigbo – while Kainene flourishes after taking over the family business. Long before the Biafran War and racial genocide have invaded proceedings, which they do in the latter half of the film, the sisters are caught in an imbroglio of illicit affairs and matriarchal manipulation. The aim of all of this is sweeping epic of romance against deadly civil war that looks to explore notions of race, culture and national identity amidst these tangled relationships. Sadly, the script isn’t strong enough for such lofty ambitions.
The nuances of language, crucial in the source, are maintained largely in Olanna, but are later drowned out by her wildly fluctuating character and staccato pacing. Half of a Yellow Sun races through its early scenes, never allowing little time to know its characters or understand their motivations. As such, decisions made feel unrealistic, creating a pervasive implausibility. When the narrative does find its feet – namely at the outbreak of the conflict – it’s too late to rally the audience to the characters’ cause regardless of the undoubted quality of the actors on display. Individual elements do work, particularly its evocation of the period and setting, but on the whole the narrative struggles to master any of its disparate themes and aims. The original novel is advertised as being about “the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class and race – and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things”. In this instance, Bandele’s adaptation seems to have muddied the waters even further.
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