Biyi Bandele must have felt that the cinematic thread that would weave Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic Half of A Yellow Sun into a coherent visual narrative had to be the relationship between the sororal twins Kainene and Olanna. It is a gamble that pays off spectacularly onscreen. The world premiere at The Elgin and Wintergarden Theatre at the recent 2013 Toronto Film Festival ended with an extended standing ovation from an appreciative audience.
Bandele uses the relationships between the sisters and their lovers to explore the tensions between progressive and reactionary ideals in the emerging post-independent Nigeria, against a backdrop of a political structure broken by ethnic rivalry and a country plunged into war. The film opens on independence day and ends at the cessation of the civil war, focusing on the effects of the war on the lives of the wealthy, beautiful and well-educated Ozobia sisters and their lovers, the revolutionary Odenigbo and the romantic Richard. Confident Kainene takes over the family business in Port Harcourt with an audacity that compels her father’s friend to note that Chief Ozobia did not lose out for having only twin daughters. Reserved Olanna chooses a progressive vocation, teaching at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. It is also a more traditional choice, facilitating a searing romance with Odenigbo who also lectures at the university.
As the war closes in on the main protagonists and forces them to move from Nsukka, to Abba (not to be confused with Aba) and then to Umuahia, Bandele explores perhaps most tellingly, the blighting effect of war, on the lives of real people in whose towns and villages it is fought, as it grinds endlessly on. The linear structure and lyrical style of the narrative may merely nod at the director’s theatre background but they also pay direct, even if unwitting, homage to its Nollywood antecedents.
The casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Odenigbo and Thandie Newton as Olanna delivered the most compelling romantic chemistry seen on film in recent times. The duo has had ample practice. This is the third time they’ve been cast as lovers in feature films. You’ll have to watch the film to find out if they finally got hitched onscreen. Ejiofor is a passionate, flawed and totally credible Odenigbo while Thandie Newton’s Olanna is vulnerable and always endearing. Richard, played by Joseph Mawle, is just wistful enough, while his girlfriend, Anika Noni Rose’s caustic Kainene, manages to make a strong emotional connection with the audience that lasts well beyond the film’s end credits. Onyeka Onwenu is unforgettable as Mama, with a commanding performance worthy of multiple awards. John Boyega’s dignified portrayal of Ugwu foretells a bright future for the young actor, and Gloria Young delivers a noteworthy performance as Aunty Ifeka. Genevieve Nnaji’s faintly provocative role as Miss Adebayo, cements the film’s authentic homage to Nollywood.
Biyi Bandele’s Half of A Yellow Sun works well beyond playing successfully to a live audience in a full cinema. It is worth seeing for several good reasons, from Andrew McAlpine’s outstanding yet understated production design, so artfully captured by John de Borman’s skillful cinematography, to Ben Onono’s haunting cover of Sibelius’ Finlandia and Jo Katsaras’s evocative period costumes.
Half of A Yellow Sun is an active collaboration between the British and Nigerian film industries was shot largely in Nigeria at the Tinapa Studios and on location in Calabar and Creek Town.