It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of a few little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. All the same, a political melodrama needs to make such problems compelling, in spite of their big-picture irrelevance—no simple task. Casablanca pulled it off by keeping World War II (which was then ongoing) mostly in the background, concentrating on Rick and Ilsa; other classics, from Gone With The Wind to Farewell My Concubine, likewise feature characters robust enough to hold the screen opposite wartime chaos. Such larger-than-life personalities are sorely missing from Half Of A Yellow Sun, a plodding adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Set during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, which has rarely (if ever?) been depicted cinematically, the film struggles in vain to balance petty infidelities and other personal crises with displacement, famine, and death.
Part of the problem—which the novel doesn’t share—is that first-time director Biyi Bandele, who also wrote the screenplay, has chosen to tell the story in strict chronological order. Consequently, almost an hour elapses before war breaks out, during which time Half Of A Yellow Sun plays like a Nigerian soap opera. Opening in 1960, as the country celebrates its independence from the U.K., the film introduces twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), freshly back from studying in London. Olanna promptly moves in with her politically minded boyfriend, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while Kainene takes up with Richard (Joseph Mawle), an English writer studying the so-called dark continent. Just about all the members of this quartet wind up cheating on their lovers (including some cross-cheating among the group), and there’s an unplanned pregnancy to boot. None of this material is of much interest for its own sake, though, and Bandele fails to suggest the impending nightmare that will soon descend upon these blandly privileged characters and render their rote recriminations meaningless.
Bandele seems reluctant to provide any context for viewers not already familiar with Nigeria’s turbulent history—a bit odd, since Newton and Ejiofor’s presence suggests that the film was made with a Western audience in mind. Various regions of the country are clearly at odds, but there isn’t even an opening title explaining that Nigeria is essentially a British construct that created an artificial border around numerous ethnic groups with radically different sociopolitical systems. When men in military uniform suddenly start murdering civilians, their motives are a mystery, at least onscreen; when part of the country secedes and declares itself the independent state of Biafra (the film’s title refers to the emblem on Biafra’s flag), it takes a while to grasp that Olanna, Odenigbo, and Kainene, who are all Igbo, are in favor of the movement (which was opposed by the British, but tacitly supported by America). It just seems as if random violence is raining down on a bunch of uninteresting, self-involved people.
Adichie’s novel provides multiple characters with an internal monologue that’s absent here, and it jumps back and forth in time, creating tension by withholding some of the more melodramatic details until late in the book. Relationships during the war are curiously strained, with the reasons for the rancor eventually divulged via flashbacks. Bandele inexplicably ditches this structure, and also seems at a loss for what to do with Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu, who’s played by rising star John Boyega but mostly just stands around looking servile, because viewers aren’t made privy to his thoughts. This is a common failing of literary adaptations, but it’s magnified in this instance by the deliberate disjunction between the small-scale personal story and the historical events that wiped out more than a million civilians. “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable,” Kainene tells Olanna toward the end of the film, by way of rapprochement. A bloody civil war isn’t just a convenient means of letting your sister off the hook for screwing your husband, though, and this movie, for all its good intentions, doesn’t seem to recognize that.