Half of a Yellow Sun

March 22, 2014
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'Half of a Yellow Sun' (2013)
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'Half of a Yellow Sun' (2013)

Unlike Saudi Arabia, where there is virtually no film industry, Nigeria is second only to India as a cinematic powerhouse. ‘Nollywood’ routinely produces more than a thousand movies a year but I’ve never seen a single example at an Australian venue.

This is one of the reasons why Half of a Yellow Sun, an Anglo-Nigerian co-production, seemed such a tantalising proposition. Based on a best-selling novel by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, set during the conflict over the breakaway state of Biafra in the late 1960s, it deals with a painful episode in African history.

Despite the promise and anticipation, it takes about two minutes to realise that Biyi Bandele has made a piece of junk. The film begins as a soap opera and degenerates into a farce, as the lead characters roam from one town to the next, trying to keep ahead of the Nigerian forces.

I haven’t read Adichie’s novel, but if the movie follows the plot with reasonable accuracy, it can only be described as a melodrama. The story revolves around two beautiful sisters who come from a wealthy, educated background, and their love affairs with two unpromising men. It’s not easy to act in a film with subliterate dialogue, but every actor seems to have been bitten by some virulent tropical bug that has rendered them insensible. Reputedly the cast was ravaged by typhoid and malaria!

That may be a fair excuse, but Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose, as the twins Olanna and Kainene, wouldn’t get a gig in the school play. The same might be said for Joseph Mawle, who plays Richard, a diffident Englishmen whom the girls – for some unknown reason – find irresistable. At least Chitwetel Ejiofor who received an Oscar nomination for his role as Solomon Northup in Twelve Years a Slave, makes a vague attempt at acting, in his role as Olanna’s boyfriend, Odenigbo. Ejiofor may be the saviour of this film at the box office, as he is now a bona fide celebrity.

With a budget of $8 million, Half of a Yellow Sun is the most expensive Nigerian film ever made – which speaks volumes about the low-cost, high turnover nature of Hollywood. The movie has been treated leniently, if half-heartedly, by commentators who obviously wanted it to be good.

Although there are excuses in terms of finance, a cramped shooting schedule, and constant rearrangements of the script, there is no disguising the poor nature of Bandele’s creative decisions. I’ll say no more about the dialogue. The music is intrusive and ham-fisted, while the continuity is laughable. We watch a protracted scene of packing luggage but entire battles are passed over in seconds.

Most of the major plot developments are so implausible and badly delineated that the narrative becomes incomprehensible. What’s so sexy about rodent-faced Richard? Why is Odenigbo always angry? Why did he have it off with the frumpy servant? Why did glamorous Olanna want to bring up the baby that inevitably resulted? Why do they keep getting in the car and driving from one place to the next?

“Non capisco,” as they say in Lagos.

Aside from its practical problems, the project was caught in a double-bind by its use of big-name international stars in the lead roles while popular Nigerian actors such as Genevieve Nnaji, were consigned to bit parts. In this it was the antithesis of Wadjda, which used only Saudi Arabians with outstanding success.

The big names that were meant to ensure global acceptance alienated the Africans, yet the overheated, slapdash nature of the production feels like a provincial cut-and-paste job. One might think that nothing could be less attractive to international distributors, but Leap Frog Films has taken a punt on the Australasian market. They may be hoping for a quick elevation to cult status, as Half of a Yellow Sun has all the hallmarks of one of those dramas that finds a second life as a comedy.

Half of a Yellow Sun
Nigeria/UK, rated M
111 mins
Directed by Biyi Bandele; screenplay by Biyi Bandele, from a novel by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie; starring Chitwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Joseph Mawle, John Boyega, Genevive Nnaji

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22 March, 2014.

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