To make a film based on a book is often a poisoned chalice for filmmakers. Not only do they face the usual challenge of creating a piece of entertainment which will please an audience, but they have the added pressure of doing justice to the story upon which it is based and managing the expectations of its readers.
So spare a thought for playwright, novelist, screenplay writer and now film director Biyi Bandele who took on the mammoth task of bringing to the big screen ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, the award winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Prior to writing a review of the film one of the issues as a writer is whether to focus upon how it measures up to the book or to judge it independently, particularly when keeping in mind those who are not familiar with the novel. Therefore this piece aims to provide an insight into both the purists who are avid fans of the book and those who consider watching the film as an independent entity.
The book stands as powerful literary piece which through the eyes of four characters tells the heart wrenching story of the rarely discussed Nigerian civil war which took place between 1967 and 1970. For lovers of the book the fact that the plot is heavily entrenched in the politics and conflict of Biafra is an element which is only given part justice to in the film.
Before filming began, there was much controversy over biracial actress Thandie Newton being chosen to play the leading role of Olanna, a Nigerian woman hailing from the Igbo tribe.
Critics were vocal regarding the fact that Igbo women are of a darker complexion, while some argued that Nigeria has a wealth of acting talent, yet the role was given to an actress from the West. To give credit where credit is due, aside from a sometimes questionable accent and moments where she lacks chemistry with other characters, Newton manages to delivers some powerful scenes. However, the question of whether a Nigerian actress such as Genevieve Nnaji (who has a small guest role in the film) should have been cast as Olanna is certainly an issue for discussion.
The film begins with excellent real life footage of the Queen visiting Nigeria, indeed the continuous usage of historical documentation as the plot develops gives the film context and an added authenticity.
The opening scenes show Olanna (Newton) and non-identical twin sister Kainene (Played by the astounding Anika Noni Rose) as girls from a wealthy Lagos family dressed in the latest fashions and speaking in posh accents at Nigerian Independence Day celebrations.
Unlike in the book, where the sisters are a major part of a greater plot filled with a complexity of characters, the film is built around the relationship between the siblings and how it reflects the turmoil facing a country as it descends into war.
Slowly we see the introduction of other characters such as Olanna’s lover Odenigbo, the academic armchair revolutionary played by the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor, Richard, the white English writer who falls in love with Kainene and Ugwu (played by John Boyega), Odenigbo’s observant yet silent houseboy a character so central in the book, yet underused in the film.
Much focus is put upon Olanna’s relationship with Odenigbo, its many upheavals ranging from infidelity to disapproval from his mother (a show stealing performance by Onyeka Onwenu) who describes Olanna as a ‘witch’. We see Olanna leaving behind her lavish Lagos lifestyle to join her lover in Nsukka and ultimately it is this decision which sees her living in Biafra and then being plunged into relative poverty. Her betrayal of Kainene which ultimately tears apart the relationship between the sisters
In the background we see the coming of war, subtle references to strikes and tribal tensions take place in the dialogue between characters, while simultaneously we are drawn into the everyday realities which they face.
Even for those who have not read the book, the depth of these characters is only glimpsed in the film and this is evident throughout. By keeping focus on Olanna and Kainene, the director misses out on the opportunity to have created a masterpiece which would have done justice to the reality of post-colonial Nigeria and the Biafra war. In particular the character of Ugwu, who with his array of expressions steals the show, should have been given greater scope to illustrate the impact of the war through the eyes of a young, uneducated, coming of age houseboy.
Similarly, there is no suggestion behind the rivalry between Olanna and Kainene, despite the fact that it is explained in the book as Kainene being jealous of the fact that her sister is considered to be the attractive one. The omission of this simply makes the viewer think that Kainene is stuck up with no real basis to her issues with her sister.
Both those who have and have not read the book will also question the fading of Odenigbo towards the end of the film. As one who is depicted both on screen and paper as a slightly eccentric, angry and radical thinker, the expectation that a darker side would emerge to him as a result of the ugliness of war is not met with.
For all its weaknesses, there are many aspects of the film which deserve praise and are perhaps enough reason to go see it.
Foremost is the chilling and raw depiction of the war, certain scenes of violence and chaos leave the viewer in shock at just how easily forgotten the conflict was despite its horrific impact. Some of the more emotionally ridden scenes have an atmosphere which is palatable.
The parts of the film which were filmed on location in Nigeria do full justice to the lush greenery and beauty of a country which is all too often associated with other matters and negative connotations, indeed one cannot help but relish in the aesthetics of some of the scenery. The endearing way in which Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character refers to Olanna as ‘Nkem’, the attention to detail and authenticity in terms of decor, furniture, costumes and the atmosphere in every scene is superb. The clothing, cut, colours worn by the female characters not only ooze accuracy in terms of history and fashion, but are likely to impress any follower of fashion.
Similarly the music transports one back to the era of Miriam Makeba and Eartha Kitts and draws in the viewer as every song or piece of music perfectly complements the scene it is created for.
Also not to be missed are the show stopping, scene stealing performances by Anika Noni Rose, Onyeka Onwenu and John Boyega, all of whom are sadly not exploited enough.
Overall Half of a Yellow Sun delivers a few scenes of poignancy and raw emotions which would leave any viewer speechless, however the exclusion of key parts of the book will be evident to both those who have and have not read it, for the result is a fairly disjointed production which though has its moments of genius, is let down by “too much of everything and too much of nothing going on.”
Samira Sawlani is a UK based writer specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories set in Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani
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