Setting your romantic epic against a historical backdrop is a risky proposition: Lend too much weight to actual events (especially those as horrific as in the 1967-70 Nigerian-Biafran War) and you risk rendering your tale irrelevant; emphasize the love story and you might be accused of trivializing history.
Fortunately, Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun strikes an admirable balance between drama and history. For those whose knowledge of African history is lacking, Bandele helps the audience along with newsreel footage of the conflict framing the lives of sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), “revolutionary professor” Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and English writer Richard (Joseph Mawle).
After the nearly year-long gushing over Ejiofor’s performance in 12 Years a Slave, it’s nice to be reminded the man doesn’t always have to play the hero. The drunken Odenigbo is far from a sympathetic figure, impregnating another woman while ostensibly engaged to Olanna, and unable or unwilling to stand up to his domineering mother. Newton, finally paroled from Tyler Perry films, turns Olanna into our stalwart protagonist, providing the story’s indomitable moral center. Well, except for some revenge sex. Give her a break: Her man had a baby with the housekeeper.
Half of a Yellow Sun walks a thin line between soap opera (nobody in ’60s Nigeria knew how to conceal infidelity, apparently) and atrocity exhibit, but Bandele — directing and writing the script based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel — stays the course admirably. Scenes of forced evacuation are necessarily intense, and the desperation of the refugee experience is conveyed, but Bandele still offers a rich and passionate saga.