JDIFF Review – Half of a Yellow Sun

Sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) fight for love and acceptance even as the Nigeria Civil War erupts around them, buffering them from place to place.

Half of a Yellow Sun is an ambitious literary adaptation that attempts to throw the love stories of two sisters against the civil war that created the short lived Republic of Biafra between 1967 and 1970. The aim, it seems, is to show Nigerian women, whose families flourished under colonisation. The cast – Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Joseph Mawle – try their best with what they are given, but the women start off strong and end up beaten, and the men get away with the destructive choices they make.

Thandie Newton, as Olanna, is the character through whose eyes we view the film and she does well in the role. The same goes for Ejiofor as the revolutionary she falls in love with. Rose is a little more wooden than her colleagues, giving us very little to understand about the character. That said, it is not the actors’ fault that the film does not always fit together properly.

Framed as an epic and feeling a lot like a Merchant Ivory film, Half of a Yellow Sun attempts to address the discord between the tribal villages of Nigeria and the more ‘Westernised’ cities, as well as the political issues that led to the uprising in the first place. Interspersing the film with news reports of the day gives context, but combining this with expository dialogue leaves the film feeling more like a history lesson than a story. There is also an issue with supporting characters being utterly underused; Rose and Mawle are left to languish in the background for much of the film, and a subplot where Ugwu (John Boyega), a manservant, is forcibly conscripted, sees horrific conflict and ultimately returns a different man takes all of about 15 minutes. There would surely have been some benefit to having Ugwu’s story moved to the fore, to allow the audience an understanding of the conflict that surrounds the characters.

Diector Biyi Bandele took on an ambitious project with Half of a Yellow Sun, a project that all too often soars out of his grasp. The result is a film that tries to cover too much and ends up explaining little and a curiously old fashioned and trite examination of a conflict that engulfed Nigeria for many years.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a messy tale of love and acceptance that almost works. There are some strong performances in the film, but a tendency to skim the surface of emotions and history leave the film thin but pretty.

Rating: 2/5

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