There’s a scene a little more than halfway into Half of a Yellow Sun that encapsulates the film’s strengths in one impressive shot. Olanna (Thandie Newton) sits and talks with Mama (Onyeka Onwenu) in front of their Nigerian home, discussing her potential marriage to Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Writer-director Biyi Bandele begins with a long two-shot, slowly tracking in on the pair as they speak, with the quiet piano keys of Ben Onono and Paul Thomson’s score supplementing Olanna’s emotional realization of Mama’s approval. As Olanna begins to cry and agrees to marriage, the camera pans to her, removing Mama from the frame. Slowly, and in reverse order of the previous motion, the shot pans back and tracks out, revealing Odenigbo sitting beside her now, in place of Mama, as the pair embrace. It’s an excellent, fluid handling of a turning point in a narrative of personal catharsis within the national torment of Nigeria’s violent fight for independence during the 1960 civil wars.
Bandele provides several of these kinds of well-placed, sensible formal flourishes throughout, which is essential, because his script, adapted from the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is typical historicism, falling into the trappings of middlebrow literary adaptation by finding only sporadic means to convincingly adjudicate the trauma and anguish of its transitory epoch. The film utilizes an all-too familiar binary of unifying protagonists through love amid their surrounding, war-torn milieu, while neglecting to locate the crux of the characters’ true passions and desires. For example, Olanna and Odenigbo are both college professors (she’s a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Yale, we’re told), but little is made of her prowess as an intellectual, aside from a passing reference to Hegelian philosophy, instead resigning nearly every conversation/dilemma to her borderline obsessive desires to lock down a man.
It’s a shame, because Newton’s performance is game for a much larger, more demanding role that could elucidate these multi-faceted interests. Still, Newton remains a dynamic presence throughout, even given the one-dimensional, jilted-lover role she’s asked to inhabit. Bandele smartly captures the majority of her performance in long takes, most notably in an early, almost three-minute shot of her moving throughout a dining room during a Nigerian Independence Day soirée. If such a scene gestures toward the ambitious formal choices of, say, Jean Renoir, the film displays little aptitude for locating the social and psychological geographies of class-based warfare, nor does the script leave much room for gray areas, with Nigerian nationals as little more than gun-toting stick figures. Moreover, bursts of violence within the narrative reveal Bandele’s trepidation in aestheticizing violence whatsoever, as the sequences are edited in a requisite manner, refusing to take a daring approach to reconciling violent passions of various sorts.