Set during Nigeria’s independence in the 1960s, we follow twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), who squander an important business contract for their father, in turn for an individualistic livelihood; the chance to find their own paths and fulfil their own destinies. Before they know it they both fall in love, the former with activist Odenigbo (Ejiofor), and the latter with the British writer Richard (Joseph Mawle). While illicit affairs and illegitimate children blight this romantic tale, a devastating civil war breaks out – as suddenly our protagonists find their lives in danger, as their privileged backgrounds count for nothing at all.
Half of a Yellow Sun is overtly melodramatic, playing out at times like a daytime soap opera. There are so many twists and turns – that may be enticing and sincere on paper – but come across on screen in a somewhat laughable manner, as though Albert Square has been picked up and dropped in Lagos. A saving grace, however, is that Bandele seems to have acknowledged this fact and embraces such an overstated approach as a result, playing on the absurdity of it all. That said, the melodrama does cheapen the political impact, as when the tone shifts and suddenly the war takes precedence over the narrative, we don’t feel ready to invest in such severe, poignant themes.
Nonetheless the implementation of archive footage is essential, giving us a great political and social context, helping to narrate this complex tale. It is frustratingly conventional however, not taking enough risks for it to stand out – you only need to look as far as the animated map that comes across the screen, with a cheap aeroplane drawn to outline the journey across the Nigerian cities. You also don’t get a sense of time at all – and had it not been for the fact we see a baby being born to it then growing up to be a young child of five or six, you would be forgiven for thinking this entire tale takes place across a mere matter of months.
Where Half of a Yellow Sun does impress, however, is within the array of strong performances, with both Ejiofor and Newton shining in the lead roles. Though the cast is very strong – with supporting roles also for the likes of John Boyega and Onyeka Onwenu – the film regrettably fails to match up to its distinct potential. There is a wonderful line “I’m too old to die young from smoking” – but that’s a rare gem in an otherwise hackneyed script that doesn’t quite give this talented cast the platform they need to truly excel.
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