By trying to include an entire acclaimed novel on-screen, first-time filmmaker Biyi Bandele waters down momentous real-life events. The film is fascinating enough to hold our attention as it traces the first decade of Nigeria's independence, but the human drama at the centre never feels like much more than a soap opera.
The story starts in 1960 Lagos, as Nigeria proudly declares independence and looks to a bright future as Africa's largest, most prosperous nation. At the centre are twin sisters educated in America and Britain: Olanna (Thandie Newton) decides against working in the government, travelling north to teach at university; Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) moves east to manage their father's business. But it's their love lives that define them. Olanna falls for colleague Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose Mama (Onyeka Onwenu) treats her as if she's a witch. Meanwhile, Kainene has a passionate affair with married Englishman Richard (Joseph Mawle). And both of their relationship struggles are echoed in Nigeria's violent birth pangs.
The film is punctuated with newsreel footage from the period, which adds to the authentic production design. The 1960s are recreated on-screen with an attention to detail from the bustling village streets to the stylish Mad Men-like sophistication of upper-class sitting rooms. Indeed, the focus is on the contrast between locals caught in ethnic and religious traditions and the foreign-educated progressive thinkers. So it's no wonder that the country experiences a series of violent coups, ethnic cleansing and a hideous civil war.
The cast is excellent. Both Newton and Rose create lively, vivid women we can identify with, while Ejiofor and Mawle find striking depth in their less-defined roles. Perhaps the most engaging character is John Boyega's perceptive house-boy, through whose eyes we see most of the action. But since writer-director Bandele has tried to include so many details from Chimanda Ngozi Adichie's acclaimed novel, the film never quite grabs hold. It feels scattered, diluted and melodramatically overwrought. It's still an interesting account of Nigeria's troubled history, although a more focussed approach would have also made it moving.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th May 2014
Box Office USA: $53.6k
Distributed by: Monterey Media
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Fresh: 24 Rotten: 23
IMDB: 5.9 / 10
Director: Biyi Bandele
Producer: Andrea Calderwood
Screenwriter: Biyi Bandele
Also starring: Andrea Calderwood
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