“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”
Set in 1960’s Nigeria, Half of a Yellow Sun is a near faithful adaptation of the Orange Prize winning novel of the same name, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. British educated twin sisters Olanna and Kainene want more than to marry politically and continue lives of wealth and privilege. Beautiful Olanna plans to move in with her revolutionary lover, professor Odenigbo, and his servant boy Ugwu, and teach sociology at Odenigbo’s university. Fierce Kainene has enthralled English writer Richard, and begins a relationship with him while taking over the family businesses. As loyalties are tested, the complications of love seem simple in a country on the brink of civil war.
Debut director Biyi Bandele has brought Adichie’s evocative portrait of war-torn Nigeria to life, making up for any details lost with gorgeous visuals and a perfect soundtrack. Adichie’s only requirement was that it be filmed entirely in Nigeria, giving a rich authenticity to the story.
Half of a Yellow Sun begins joyfully, in the midst of Independence Day celebrations. However, as time goes on, fireworks are replaced by firepower and the story takes a darker turn. Acts deemed despicable at first appear tame compared to the atrocities of war, and the characters have to fight to retain their humanity. Archival footage of news reports from the time interrupt the plot occasionally, setting the story in place and making it frighteningly clear how real the events pictured were, even though the characters themselves are fictional.
The acting is impressive. Academy Award nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a great performance but it is the moments between Olanna and Kainene (Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose) that are the most memorable. Adichie’s words fit effortlessly into the script, characters speaking lines from the book so naturally it is hard to remember that the script was predetermined, not improvised.
In the translation from paper to screen, however, something has been lost. Where Adichie has plotted an intricate tale – pieces of the puzzle slowly being revealed as the story progresses – the film has chosen to take a more straightforward approach and I believe this is to its detriment. The plot becomes no more than a sequence of events, a cycle of calm followed by violence, followed by misleading calm, and so on until the final credits. Though in some ways this works in the story’s favour, adding to the feeling that the film is a window into genuine human lives, at times the linear re-telling makes it harder to connect with the characters. Much of Ugwu’s story is lost, told through a few insinuations and exclamations from other main characters, and even the vivid Kainene has a supporting rather than central role.
Any faults the film may have, however, are simply in comparison to the book – which being a masterpiece of literature sets the bar high for any adaptation. Beautiful and sobering in turn, Half of a Yellow Sun is a must-see in any form.