The effects of the Nigerian-Biafran War from 1967-1970 is shown through the relationships between four people's lives. After the British leave and Nigeria gains its independence, the main characters' lives are torn apart.
DUBAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Derailed by the 2008 global financial crisis, then later revived by producer Andrea Calderwood (The Last King of Scotland), this Nigerian-UK co-production seeks to adapt Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated, epic melodrama in a streamlined, simplified manner.
Filmmaker Biyi Banadele, in his big-screen debut, opts to radically shift the tone of Adichie’s tome, favouring a clear linear arc. Then, in an effort to maintain momentum, he has each chapter punctuated with archival news footage. The source material – all 450 pages of it – features multiple points of view (and jumps back and forth in time). Here, it’s left largely down to actress Thandie Newton, as the headstrong, breakaway element of an otherwise well-to-do Igbo family, to front the film. The weight of a nation rests squarely on her shoulders.
Banadele has impressive talent at his disposal. Aside from Newton, a familiar and effective presence from Britain, there’s the charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor, currently generating awards-season heat via Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The feature’s evocative production (Andrew McAlpine) and costume design (Jo Katsaras), set to the vibrant sounds of an authentic soundtrack (from the likes of Miriam Makeba), offer a solid base from which to gravitate.
Banadele’s film begins with the pomp and splendor of the British empire giving way to scenes of jubilation, as Nigeria celebrates its independence. Twin sisters Olanna (Newton) and Kainene (Dreamgirls’s Anika Noni Rose), just back from London, are dining with their parents in the family pile. The former vows to pursue teaching (on the other side of the country), while the latter agrees to take over the family firm. Olanna then joins her lover, Odenigbo (Ejiofor) – whom Kainene sarcastically dubs 'the Revolutionary’ – in Nsukka, while the image-conscious Kainene falls for a bookish expat, named Richard (Joseph Mawle).
Both of the sisters’s lives are soon thrown into disarray, as war begins to rage around them. For ease of reference, maps are partially drawn on screen to indicate sudden movement. Olanna and Odenigbo, especially, shift locales to avoid the escalating violence, finding solace in the ill-fated independent state of Biafra (which lasted a brief three years, before the military dissolved it in 1970). In amongst all this, late-night eulogising about the state of the nation is washed down with copious servings of alcohol (and generous amounts of sex), much to the embarrassment of house boy Ugwu (Attack the Block’s John Boyega), who tries in vain to perfect his rice-cooking skills. Odenigbo’s formidable mother (Onyeka Onwenu) remains impervious to Olanna’s earthy spirit, disapproving of her academically minded son’s choice of a spouse. Kainene eventually reappears heading up a refugee camp, while curiously still dressed up to the nines.
If this all sounds rather frothy, it is. Limiting insight to the upper classes of the Igbo and little else – with rather quaint newsreels to plugs the gaps – feels misguided. Ugwu’s voice, particularly, is lacking. The scenes of domesticity, while convincing, feel better suited to a miniseries than a feature. Only when the protagonists’s lives are at stake – and bombs drop, particularly during Olanna and Odenigbo’s hastily arranged wedding – does the piece truly comes alive, with a sense of much-needed urgency. Had this been sustained, the film may not have felt so frustratingly superficial.