Jean-Jacques Annaud makes a bid for the sweep and stature of Lawrence of Arabia with Black Gold, but pedestrian storytelling and clunky dialogue leaves his would-be epic drama about a power struggle between feuding kingdoms in soon-to-be-oil-rich 1920s Arabia bogged down in the sand.
Yet the story has promise. And so does the cast. Antonio Banderas and Mark Strong play rival rulers who agree, after a costly war, that the so-called Yellow Belt between them will henceforth be neutral territory. To guarantee the peace, Banderas’s emir Nesib ‘adopts’, or rather takes hostage, the two young sons of Strong’s sultan Amar. The truce endures until an American prospector discovers oil in the Yellow Belt.
The prospect of untold wealth immediately threatens the delicate balance of power, with Nesib eager to grasp the opportunities offered by modernity while Amar clings tenaciously to faith and tradition. When conflict breaks out, however, it’s the unlikely figure of Amar’s bookish younger son, Auda, played by Tahar Rahim, who surprisingly proves the most cunning warrior.
Rahim’s role as the underdog who surprises everyone by becoming an overlord has much in common with his character in prison drama A Prophet, who similarly defied expectations to become an astute power broker. Rahim was electrifying in A Prophet, but he’s a lot less impressive here. That’s mainly, I suspect, because the film’s stodgy script – written in English by a Frenchman (Annaud) and a Dutchman (Menno Meyjes) and based on the 1957 novel The Great Thirst by Swiss writer Hans Ruesch – leaves the cast floundering.
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Amid decorative supporting performances by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto (as Auda’s doe-eyed love interest) and Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede (as a wild-eyed slave girl), Riz Ahmed provides some much needed spark as Auda’s irreverent half-brother, a doctor who dispenses Western medicine and sceptical rationalism in equal doses. Yet such is the film’s fear of giving offence to Islam that the plot ensures that Ahmed’s mocking jester figure turns boringly pious before the end.
On general release from Friday 24th February.
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