Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which recounts the Biafran war from a personal and not military perspective. Charged with adapting this 2007 award-winning book is first time director and playwright Biyi Bandele.
Where the book focused on the two sisters, Bandele has streamlined that to one. Those two sisters are Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), two successful women who have returned home to Nigeria from England. Upon return, Olanna returns to her partner Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – the focus of the film – while Kainene meets and falls for English Author Richard (Joseph Mawle). During the first hour, Bandele observes the growing relationships and the conflict that arises between the tribal heritage of Nigeria and their burgeoning bourgeoisie culture. The latter hour gives in to Biafran Civil War and how Odenigbo and Olanna try to keep up the status quo despite the chaos of their situation.
Biyi Bandele is a playwright and on evidence of the film that much is immediately obvious. Half of a Yellow Sun is made of many scenes confined to one room with a few players involved. As such the visual personality of the film is flat, putting too much emphasis on the performers while doing little to elevate the material to cinematic. The way the director has framed the film would be better suited on a stage, thanks to his simple cinematography and the evasion of anything overtly filmic.
The best characteristics come from the occasional deviations. While Olanna and Odenigbo are but two of the many victims in a terrible situations, they try to get by an endearing effort that is consistently interrupted by the war. With explosions and gunfire spontaneously interrupting expectations, it gives Half a Yellow Sun the power that one would traditionally assign to cinema attracted to civil war. While that is true, it also provides a necessary distraction from a relationship drama that meanders into soap opera territory all too often.
Getting back to the materials closeness to a stage play, that form of storytelling is pure exposure to acting as a performance art. Bandele’s experience there translates well with a collection of performances that all sit on the strong side, save for Thandie Newton who regularly opts for screaming histrionics. The champion of this mix is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who continues to cement his status as one of the finest actors working, with Odenigbo he delivers the goods as one would expect of an actor of his pedigree. John Boyega (Attack the Block) also gets a small role, but his inclusion is evocative of the fatal down-scaling necessary to bring Adichie’s novel to the screen.
That is Half of a Yellow Sun’s greatest problem, the rough adaptation. A stage-like feel is becoming gradually customary in cinema; it’s an unavoidable comparison for any film that is dialogue driven. Even with the political grandstanding, the play comparison isn’t too much of an issue. The problem is that there hints of a greater story, with Olanna grappling with Odenigbo’s super conservative tribal mother and the entire arc of Ugwu (Boyega).
Knowing these aspects are present in the text, these condensed remnants imply there is more to this than what we are being shown. At times this feels like an abridged version edited down for convenience. Perhaps then, a stage play would be more suitable for this interpretation, that way one would see the picture and not just a disappointing scrap-booked version.
Half of a Yellow Sun is now playing in Selected UK Cinemas.