Civil war tests loyalties

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Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Picture: Supplied
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Half of a Yellow Sun (M)
3 stars
Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor


The turbulent early years of Nigeria's independence provide the backdrop to this adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel about the battle for survival in a land torn apart by civil war.

The story begins in 1960 with Nigeria granted independence by an Act of the British Parliament.

Twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) are determined to celebrate Independence Day in the style they've become accustomed to as middle-class, educated Nigerians with plummy British accents partying among the fashionable, wealthy set.

Life seems promising for these two Nigerian women whose wealth allows them to take lovers - Olanna with a left-wing fellow academic and Kainene with an English journalist. Their bright horizons seem to reflect the country's future as Nigerians take over their own destiny.

But political troubles are brewing. Olanna and Kainene are Igbo, the tribal grouping that has control of the eastern part of Nigeria. Trouble is, the Hausa, the majority in the north, have control of the rest of the country.

The Igbo declare themselves the independent republic of Biafra, bringing on civil war. We now know it as the Biafran crisis, in which Igbo were slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands and about four million people - many of them children - faced starvation.

If you're not familiar with Biafra and the Igbo, don't worry, because the film uses newsreel footage and maps to illustrate their journeying between cities in the east as the war hots up.

The violence of civil war is brought home to this privileged class of people in graphic detail, with sudden explosions literally outside their windows.

It's almost become a cinematic cliche in films about African politics to see victims fleeing on foot and in their cars as bombs explode around them.

Writer-director Biyi Bandele even uses the old suspense device of the car engine failing to start until the bonnet is lifted and wires hastily fixed before the car takes off, just avoiding the next incoming missile.

But Half of a Yellow Sun is not an action movie, nor a political thriller. Rather, it's an exploration of how Nigerians from a wealthy background negotiate their own love affairs, family loyalties and class divisions.

Adding the dark, dangerous complication to their lives is the civil war they are forced to confront.

Unfortunately, the film lacks the wider political dimension of the novel which describes the events from different points of view.

Newton's Olanna, who is the main point of view, is cool and composed, even as she is betrayed by her lover and forced into ever-increasing circles of poverty as the war upsets her perfect life.

Similarly, Rose's British-accented sister Kainene is even more composed, managing to survive the violence without so much as a wrinkle in her elegant clothing. Kainene does a good line in irony about her fellow Nigerians but is a little too self-possessed.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (who played the title role in 12 Years a Slave) is competent rather than engaging as Olanna's lover Odenigbo.

Perhaps that's because he is a weak man who, despite being labeled mockingly as a "revolutionary" by sister Kainene, is passive in the face of violence.

Overall, Half of a Yellow Sun is an interesting film rather than a gripping one, and its background is depressingly familiar, even 40 years after the original events.

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