“The war isn’t my story to tell, really,” says a character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s richly melodramatic 2006 bestseller “Half of a Yellow Sun,” arguably the most evocative literary account to date of the Nigerian Civil War that brutalized the country between 1967 and 1970. Adichie’s knottily constructed narrative wound up splitting that storytelling responsibility among four distinct perspectives, but in picking a single protagonist and ironing out its nonlinear structure, frosh helmer Biyi Bandele’s attractive, ideally cast adaptation does the novel a disservice. Superb performances, particularly from Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose as sometimes-estranged twins, rep the most sellable aspect of a diverting but surface-level saga that can’t always sustain the personal-political balance of its source; the festival-friendly result, unwittingly true to its title, feels less than whole.
The rare prestige pic that could actually stand to be longer, “Sun” takes some unavoidable short cuts in bringing Adichie’s 450-page text — already a pretty economical work, considering the scale and scope of the story — down to feature length, but may have over-corrected somewhat. Ostensibly a four- or even five-hander, the novel flips between the stories of Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a radical academic based in Nsukka; Olanna (Newton), his independent-minded sophisticate girlfriend; Kainene (Rose), Olanna’s social-climbing sister; Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s mild-mannered English lover; and Ugwu (John Boyega), the uneducated teenaged houseboy whom Odenigbo takes on as a Pygmalion project of sorts.
Evoking Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (or even, at a push, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind”) at certain points, Adiche’s episodic, back-and-forth tale would have been perfectly suited to a prestige miniseries format, as its infrequently convergent characters are buffeted from place to place by dangerous political uprisings and their own libidos. For the film’s purposes, however, it’s Newton’s Olanna who serves as our principal pair of eyes, her initially elevated social standing and dogged devotion to one dubiously deserving man making for a romantic riches-to-rags arc on which to hang her loved ones’ struggles.
The film opens in 1960, with Nigeria celebrating its newfound freedom from British rule, and Olanna and Kainene, daughters of a wealthy Igbo businessman in Lagos, newly returned from university in England. Kainene enters the family business; Olanna, to her family’s consternation, moves to Nsukka to live with Odenigbo, whom her sister snidely nicknames “the Revolutionary.” There, she attracts the scorn of Odenigbo’s traditionalist mother (Onyeka Onwenu); the tension between them symbolically foreshadows the class-clash faultlines creating social unrest throughout the country.
As clashes between the ruling Igbo class and the militant Hausa people first leave Lagos under military control and continue to flare up elsewhere, Olanna and Odenigbo are forced to flee Nsukka, heading eastwards to Biafra, the short-lived secessionist Igbo state founded in 1967. It won’t be their last panicked relocation. Meanwhile, sundry personal betrayals and infidelities repeatedly recast Olanna’s relationship both to her boyfriend and her sister.
Given its sheer amount of incident, this geographically restless story can hardly fail to engross even in attenuated form, particularly with Newton at the top of her game as Olanna, a woman whose unhidden intelligence is nonetheless often at war with her more impractical passions. The actress smartly makes Olanna work for her likeability over the course of the film; her best scenes come opposite the wonderful, similarly watchful Rose, both actresses convincingly etching the unspoken understanding that can make and break a sisterly relationship.
It’s the men who are stymied more by Bandele’s excessively condensed adaptation, with none more shortchanged than talented rising star Boyega (“Attack the Block”). His Ugwu is given little of the motivation he enjoys in the novel, where his between-two-worlds status is key to its political exploration. Ejiofor, meanwhile, does his reliable best as the suave, articulate Odenigbo, here frontloaded with emotional peaks and pitfalls. That’s partly a consequence of Bandele’s curiously uncinematic decision to restructure Adichie’s narrative in entirely chronological order, revealing certain suspended secrets early on and shortening more than one avenue of tension.
Technically, the film exudes BBC-style polish, with Andrew McAlpine’s excellent period production design and Jo Katsaras’s costumes — often defining class by the degree of balance between richly patterned traditional wear and the minimalist influence of Mary Quant — proving sufficiently evocative to make a needless crutch of the film’s frequent reliance on newsreel footage. John De Borman’s lensing is bright and even, though the helmer’s stage background is often evident in his compositional choices.