By Arturo R. García
Originally released last year, the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half Of A Yellow Sun boasts a loaded cast, but unfortunately, it doesn’t maximize its potential. What results is a historical romance that can’t get a grasp on its own history.
SPOILERS under the cut.
The film starts off with sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) marking Nigeria’s partial independence from Britain in 1960 by embarking upon their own paths: Olanna plans to pursue a career as an academic, while Kainene enters the business world. Newton and Rose have an easy chemistry — Rose is particularly sharp — which, if you haven’t read Adichie’s original work,points toward something promising.
But unfortunately for the movie, Rose is seemingly too compelling for Kainene’s role in the story; Biyi Bandele’s screenplay centers on Olanna’s tumultuous relationship with a fellow professor, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This in itself is an attempt to reconfigure Adichie’s story through different focal points: two of the film’s side characters, Odenigbo’s dutiful attendant Ugwu (John Boyega) and Kainene’s husband Richard (Joseph Mawle), actually anchor the book along with Olanna.
Ejiofor makes the most out of his character’s added attention, of course; the problem is, it becomes tougher to gauge why Olanna would want to stay with him. He goes from talking about starting a family with Olanna to drunkenly impregnating his mother’s own servant (Susan Wokoma), and for a pair of brief, encouraging scenes, Olanna rebuffs him. But they come together again as their country splits further apart in warfare.
Bandele, who also directed the film, stages the film in a manner reminiscent of a stage play at times. Though it makes for some smooth transitions between scenes, it also places her characters too far in the periphery for the action around them to resonate with the viewer. The sequence in which Odenigbo, Olanna, Ugwu and their child try to escape an air raid by car, though effective, symbolizes the core problem: since none of our core characters are directly involved in the war, they’re reacting to something off-screen rather than taking action on it.
That distinction costs Odenigbo in particular; the man Kainene derisively calls “the revolutionary” for his activist leanings never gets to confront the messy realities of a revolution. Similarly, we see Ugwu kidnapped and forced to take arms, but his experiences are cut out (a pity for Boyega, here showing he can play a young man worlds away from Attack The Block‘s Moses) in favor of showing more of Olanna’s struggle to get by.
And in the midst of all this, Kainene, who manages to make a living for herself as an “outlaw,” disappears for stretches at a time, dulling both her own conflict with Olanna and their reconciliation, despite Rose and Newton’s best efforts. You can see Bandele stretching to make her Half a sweeping romantic “epic,” but hindsight being 20-20, perhaps Adichie’s time-jumping, intimate approach to her story would have been better served by a multi-part TV series, which probably would have allowed Bandele the chance to preserve more of the original structure while accomodating her cast’s spark.