Half of a Yellow Sun should be a good film. A critically acclaimed novel, an emotionally charged historical period, an all star pedigree – on paper, you’d be forgiven for approaching the film with high expectations. Sadly, it’s an unfortunately undercooked melodrama that feels decidedly half baked.
Set within 1960s Nigeria, headstrong twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) return home after their respective university educations abroad. Both make similarly scandalous decisions – Olanna moves in with her lover Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Kainene assumes management of the family business and falls in love with an English – and married – writer (Joseph Mawle). The loyalties of the sisters are tested amidst the horrors of the Nigerian Civil War, and the rise and fall of short-lived republic of Biafra.
Based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel, Half of a Yellow Sun suffers from first time feature director Biyi Bandele’s inexperience and obvious attachment to the material. The novel is a veritable epic, yet one told fairly economically – with the perspectives of Odenigbo, Olanna, Kainene, her British lover Richard (Joseph Mawle), and Odenigbo’s teenage houseboy Ugwu (John Boyega) alternating to illustrate a geographically restless story spanning over a decade. Bandele disposes of Adichie’s non-linear structure and multiple perspectives, and we’re left with strong-willed Olanna as our quasi-protagonist. While she’s certainly an excellent character, the film feels decidedly lacking, barely scratching the surface.
The scenes during the war are well-executed, but we don’t approach this conflict until we’re at least halfway through and it’s too little, too late. The performances are superb all round; Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose are particularly outstanding as the sisters, imbuing each of their shared scenes with the tenuous, unspoken understanding of a sibling relationship. It has all the superficial trappings of a much better film – the photography and production design are frequently gorgeous – but there’s not a lot going on beneath the polished surface.
Half of a Yellow Sun would have been the perfect project for a longer form miniseries; it’s a rich story that’s undercut by a misguided streamlining of its sprawling narrative. True to its title, it doesn’t feel all there.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Half of a Yellow Sun is in Australian cinemas now, and is rated M.