Half of a Yellow Sun (15 cert, 111 min) ***
There are reasons to warm to Half of a Yellow Sun, rookie writer-director Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel. Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning tale of love and loss, unfolding against the backdrop of a Nigeria caught between independence and civil war, has here occasioned one of the British film industry’s few recent engagements with the nation’s colonial legacy. What’s more, while streamlining the author’s fragmented narrative, Bandele has taken care to preserve the feminist thrust that sees heroine Olanna (a glowing Thandie Newton) pass from carefree society belle to reluctant domesticity.
Indeed, behind Newton and an impressively forthright Anika Noni Rose as Olanna’s liberated sister Kainene, the men are somewhat eclipsed. As Odenigbo, the womanising intellectual Olanna tumbles for, the newly prominent Chiwetel Ejiofor functions almost as a satellite to the main action, while Joseph Mawle’s weak-willed reporter Richard is forgotten about for long stretches. Familiar problems of adaptation soon make themselves apparent: where the book was expansive in its reach, Bandele’s film makes for a rather cramped two hours. Worse, it sometimes appears naggingly detached from the upheavals it’s attempting to describe.
Even as mounting tensions set these characters ricocheting around the country – sometimes together, sometimes apart – we’re offered only cursory glimpses of Nigerian life. Shoehorning everybody into sets smothered by late Sixties finery, Bandele has to cut away to newsreel of soldiers amassing to suggest the storm gathering behind these walls; when the explosions inevitably come, they go off with an air of cautious containment. A pivotal airport massacre at least allows Ben Onono and Paul Thomson’s thunderous orchestral score to better fit events, though still Bandele holds back on the violence, so as not to perturb the matinee audience.
As a result, nothing quite matches the visceral impact of, say, Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, which gave its juggling of matters domestic and political a widescreen, Hollywood heft: though Ejiofor delivers Odenigbo’s monologue on his mother’s death as well as we might expect from this much-garlanded performer, a more forceful movie would surely show the tragedy, instead of reporting it secondhand. This may be an issue of scale, one concludes, and of our producers’ ability to mount this kind of grand, inclusive narrative on an evidently modest budget. Only a film as big as Africa could have done Adichie’s novel full justice; the treatment it gets here, equally honourable and hurried, reduces it to Nigerian soap with BAFTA-level acting.
Half of a Yellow Sun is now showing in selected cinemas.