Half Of A Yellow Sun takes its name from the flag of Biafra, the breakaway state which existed in Igbo-dominated south-east Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. The brutal civil war that followed the secession is the backdrop to Biyi Bandele's absorbing feature-film debut, adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's award-winning novel.
Spanning a decade, Half Of A Yellow Sun opens in 1960 with newsreel footage of Nigerians celebrating Independence from Britain. We are then introduced to and follow the fortunes of Olanna (Thandie Newton) and her twin sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), the middle-class, well-educated and headstrong daughters of a wealthy Lagos businessman.
The two sisters begin to drift apart when Olanna decides to move to Nsukka to be near her boyfriend, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a radical university lecturer. Olanna herself accepts a position in the Sociology department. Kainene meanwhile takes on the family business in Port Harcourt and becomes involved with Richard (Joseph Mawle), a young British writer. Olanna and Odenigbo's relationship is initially rocky, exacerbated by his mother (Onyeka Onwenu), who takes an instant dislike to Olanna and tries her utmost to split them up. But it is Olanna's betrayal of Kainene that is the more shocking and leaves the sisters bitterly estranged.
Just as Olanna and Odenigbo's relationship finds a surer footing they are forced to flee their home with Odenigbo's daughter and Ugwu (John Boyega), their loyal houseboy. Nsukka is one of the first Biafran towns to be captured by the northern Nigerian forces. The family, driven by circumstances, are forced to endure much hardship as they join the flood of refugees. Meanwhile, Kainene, forced out of Port Harcourt, has set up a refugee camp and it becomes inevitable that the two sisters' lives will collide once again.
Clearly, Bandele understands the complexities of Nigerian history, tribal fault lines, and geography and he rises superbly to the challenge of conveying the sweep and chaos of the civil war through film. While Ngozi Adichie's novel is told from multiple perspectives and jumps back and forth in time, Bandele focuses on Olanna and Odenigobo and wisely decides to give their story a linear structure. The narrative is punctuated with archival news footage and maps that show the path of the family's flight. He is well served by a stellar cast who deftly convey the seismic shifts in emotion as they move from a world of privilege to one of privation.
Bandele interweaves the political and personal to great effect and the end result is a stunning evocation of 1960s Nigeria, sumptuously shot by John de Borman. The interior scenes of familial life and moments of intimacy are in sharp contrast to the exterior shots depicting the chaos and brutality of war. This is most powerfully realised in Olanna and Odenigbo's wedding scene which is interrupted by a horrific shell attack.
It's not all war and bloodshed. Much of our pleasure derives from the attention to detail -- the costumes, hair, makeup and a terrific soundtrack. Bandele's debut is both elegant and eloquent.