Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Biyi Bandele
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Joseph Mawle, John Boyenge.
There have been many fine films about the birth of a nation, forged in fire and blood. But, unfortunately, this rather lacklustre, dull and laboured tale is not one of them.
Based on the award winning novel by Nigerian author Chiumamanda Ngozi Adichise, Half Of A Yellow Sun is set against the backdrop of Nigeria as it achieved its independence from Britain. The sun was setting on the British Empire, especially as its influence in Africa was waning. But as the natives celebrated and embraced their new found freedom from colonisation, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon, and a bloody civil war erupted. But this film concentrates more on the personal entanglements of twin sisters born into a life of privilege rather than follow the politics and bloodshed of the the struggle that consumed Nigeria for much of the decade, and it suffers due to this decision.
The characters themselves are a rather dull lot, and their stories smack of a glorified soap opera. Their intellectual discussions about the nature of independence, national identity and other philosophical topics lack any sense of urgency, and keep the audience at an emotional distance. Thandie Newton (Crash, etc) plays Olanna, a newly minted sociology professor determined to forge her own path rather than follow her father into the family business. She is in a relationship with a colleague Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, from 12 Years A Slave, etc), who has more militant views and is reluctant to get married. Olanna’s sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose, from Dreamgirls, etc) is in relationship with white novelist Richard (British actor Joseph Mawle, from tv series Ripper Street, etc), which causes enough problems given the nature of society in Nigeria at the time.
The film spans a decade, and covers the turbulent political climate and the civil war that saw the emergence of another new nation in Biafra, a bloody war that cost thousands of lives. But first time filmmaker, playwright Biyi Bandele’s handling of the material is heavy handed and strips it of much of its excitement. Bandele hails from a background in television drama, and his pacing here is rather clack and measured, and the film lacks any real sense of urgency. It only comes alive in the second half, as Olanna and Odenigbo dodge bombs and bullets as they desperately try to reach safety.
Bandele has incorporated some newsreel footage to give audiences a very real sense of time and place and put events into context. But unfortunately with a quartet of dull characters at the forefront of the drama it keeps audiences at a distance.
Only John Boyenge (from Attack The Block, etc) registers strongly with his performance as Ugwu, Odenigbo’s loyal house servant, who experiences at first hand the very real horrors of the war.
Half Of A Yellow Sun (hardly the most inspiring title) is supposedly the most expensive film shot in Nigeria, and certainly it boasts some impressive production values. This is a technically polished production. Andrew McAlpine’s production design in good, and the film was shot on location in the townships of Calabar and Creek Town, lending the material a sense of authenticity. Cinematographer John D Borman gives the film a visually lush surface with his wide screen lensing.
But despite its strong themes and story, this is such a pedestrian and uninvolving drama that it is easy to suspect that the only reason it has gained a brief, limited cinematic release is due to the strong presence of the Oscar nominated Ejiofor, who has been gaining great reviews for his performance in 12 Years A Slave.