Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's award-winning fiction — trenchantly observed tales of her country's people, and the mix of the personal and political in their lives — seems tailor-made for the emotional sweep of cinema. And "Half of a Yellow Sun," writer-director Biyi Bandele's adaptation of Adichie's novel of loyalty and betrayal set against the turbulence of the 1960s Biafran war, certainly makes for an honorably propulsive wartime soap. It's just not stirring enough as historical drama.
Bandele is fortunate enough to have a top-drawer cast in Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose as swanlike Olanna and Kainene, respectively, English-educated sisters whose relationships with intellectual men — a "revolutionary" professor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) with a judgmental village mom, and a waspy British writer (Joseph Mawle) — suffer in the fractious events following Nigeria's 1960 independence.
Bandele's theatrical penchant for proscenium-style visuals occasionally gives the romantic entanglements and dioramas of class difference a lush intimacy, like a true window on a time of messy, prideful promise. But when the horrors of civil war intrude — marked by clockwork insertions of archival black-and-white newsreels and catch-up voice over, plus awkward scenes of sudden violence — the movie's personality dissolves. The choppy melodrama leaves "Half of a Yellow Sun" feeling not quite so whole.
"Half of a Yellow Sun."
MPAA rating: R for violence and sexual content.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; and Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.