Review: Here is the problem with the ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ film

by Wilfred Okiche


The film event of the year in these parts isn’t going to be Marvel’s latest money grabber, Guardians of the Galaxy. It isn’t Angelina Jolie making a triumphantly evil return to the big screen in the sleeping beauty retool, Maleficent, and no matter how hard the campaign from Lionsgate films will come, it certainly isn’t going to be Catching fire, the concluding first part of the Hunger Games franchise headlined by Jennifer Lawrence.

No sir, the film event of the year; long delayed since its originally scheduled April release is the film version of the 2007 Orange prize winning, critically acclaimed tome Half of a yellow sun by perhaps the most exciting and influential novelist working today, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Set in the tumultuous 60s, during the period of a civil war that saw the country fall on the brink of division, ‘a ban’ slammed on the film by the all-knowing gods at the Nigeria Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) did little or nothing to dampen the enthusiasm.

Word of mouth has been impressive, building and sustaining a level of buzz that has drawn record numbers of people out of their homes and onto queues in film houses across the country, resulting in a reported unprecedented activity at the box-office.

Directed by Biyi Bandele, the dreadlocked auteur who helmed the erratic ShugaNaija, the 3rd season of the MTV Base urban advocacy and awareness show, Half of a Yellow Sun stars British Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor in the very Nigerian role of Odenigbo, the “revolutionary lover” who is swept up in the historic events of the time. A lecturer at the University of Nsukka, Odenigbo spends his evenings, meeting with his group of like-minded intellectual snobs. All they do is talk mostly, and drink, and argue and talk some more while the war looms menacingly closer.

His personal life is a hot mess. He is in a relationship with Olanna (Thandie Newton), a British educated Igbo maiden who would rather settle in a nondescript university town than go into the more lucrative family business. Odenigbo takes upon the grooming of an impressionable young lad, Ugwu and lives a generally placid life but his mother arrives Nsukka to with plans of her own. And Olanna isn’t a part of those plans.

Olanna’s less attractive twin sister Kainene is made of sterner stuff and does not understand why her sister would choose a life of underachievement with the scholar and his false airs. She manages the family business in Port Harcourt and tires of the pretentiousness of her house help but she prefers to date white men; no matter if they are married. Perhaps because her sister does not find them attractive.

These 4 characters; Olanna, Odenigbo, Kainene and Ugwu form the pillars for Ms Adichie’s chronicles of the country’s civil war history as she zig-zags between time but in a move that is more visually expedient, Bandele narrows the plot to a linear narrative with Olanna as the centrepiece. Perhaps due to budgetary constraints, Bandele’s HOAYS is more a tale of star crossed love and survival in a time of war than it is the historical document which Ms Adichie’s novel aspires to.

The breezy natural habitat of the Calabar is easily transformed to 60s-era settings with the Tinapa studios making a credible stand in for the South-Eastern region of the time. There is a beautiful scene where Olanna and Ugwu, having fled Nsukka for fear of the advancing federal troops take to teaching young Biafran children in a clearing with lots of palm trees for shade. A lot of good work is done with the sets to invoke the period. Ditto the costumes. HOAYS shines as a visual tapestry of a bygone era. Even amidst the gunshots and artillery shelling, the women still find the time to look pretty in native Ankara attire.

There is a disturbing but splendidly shot scene where Olanna barely escapes a routine massacre of Igbos at the airport and another one of mayhem that happens during a pivotal wedding scene but these moments of excitement are few and far between. Apart from the fact that the film is very well made with a laudable attention to detail, it falls flat most for most of it’s running time.

From the opening credits, to the pacing of the story, use of real life footage of the war down to the cartoonish performance by Onyeka Onwenu as Odenigbo’s mother (she was the star of the trailer) and Olanna’s visit to the Kano, just in time to watch a beloved relative being slaughtered in a pogrom, the whole experience feels trapped in a melodramatic haze. An old school television movie made for Saturday afternoons at home, as opposed to an exciting major big screen event.

The performances by the hard working actors are solid but the fact that they aren’t quite able to master the local dialects constantly removes points from their efforts. A case is made for Olanna and Kainene who developed proper British accents after their sojourn abroad but how does one explain away the fact that Mr Ejiofor is never quite able to pronounce his own name. (see Onyeka Onwenu for the proper pronunciation of Odenigbo). The filmmakers aren’t quite sure of their geography too. Does Odenigbo’s mother live in Abba, Anambra state, hometown of Ms Adichie or is it the commercial city Aba in Abia state as pronounced by everyone on screen?

An otherwise pitch-perfect performance by Ms Newton is sullied repeatedly by her inability to grasp the nuances of the Igbo language. As the fulcrum for all other story arcs, she captures the strength, uncertainty and fears of Olanna without for once going into over the top territory. Ejiofor makes for a sturdy Odenigbo and an adroit Anika Noni-Rose performance as Kainene is aborted by the script’s undercutting of her character. This is also responsible for the hollowness of the film’s ending as the audience doesn’t particularly have any reason to feel anything for her. The house boy Ugwu is the conscience and emotional triumph of Ms Adichie’s story and John Boyega makes the most of what is available to him.

Bandele has made his own interpretation of HOAYS and even though he had an unprecedented budget by Nollywood standards, the magnificence and sweep of Adichie’s story clearly overpowered him, demanding more than was available to him. It is not a bad film, not in the least. And it isn’t deficient simply because it doesn’t begin to do the book any justice. On its own, it is without the magic of the best love stories, nor the tension of the best war stories. It falls uncomfortably in between both genres, not quite knowing where to settle.

We’ll have to wait a while to see what Lupita Nyong’o will do with Americanah.

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