Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun ambitiously presents a difficult period in Nigerian history through the lives of two privileged sisters and their partners. Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) choose to stay in the newly independent Nigeria during the civil war despite having the opportunity to move to safety in the UK. Olanna and her lover Odenigbo’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) romance forms the crux of the storyline, and we are invited to witness the challenges of their relationship, from Olanna’s struggle to win the approval of Odenigbo’s mum referred to as “Mama” (Onyeka Onwenu), to infidelity which they overcome.
The cast is strong and well played by Newton and Ejiofor. Mama is played excellently by Onwenu giving a convincing portrayal of an African local woman. From her facial expressions, quiet mutterings to herself and clever lines like “I am too old to die young”, Onwenu brings a unique charm to the film.
Also, it’s refreshing to see things through the directorial eyes of an African (Biyi Bandele) rather than a Westerner looking in , and as a result, the viewer is invited to understand some of the specific cultural themes of Nigeria at this time: an older African woman from a village struggling to connect with her son’s educated girlfriend from the capital; the mother then finally asking Olanna if her family will accept the “bride price” (another way of saying she approves and is happy for them to marry); and the extreme loyalty of Ugwu, Olanna and Odenigbo’s “house boy” (servant).
Unlike other films of the same genre, it does not demonise or elevate political characters. It allows actual footage of the Nigerian-Biafran war to bring the political tone, and instead focuses on the personal impact of this terrible time on these four young professionals.
It’s a debut film for Bandele, and while there are a few shortcomings in the flow of the narrative (it’s a weighty book that probably needs a TV series rather than a 111 minutes of screen time), he does a decent job of bringing Adichie’s famous novel to the screen. (Words: Sharon Gaisie)
Half of a Yellow Sun is released in cinemas March 2014