"“There are a host of annoyances and inconsistencies which prevent Black Gold from being the historical epic it sets out to be...”"
Esteemed veteran director Jean-Jacques Annaud has displayed a talent over the course of his career for taking factual occurrences and adapting them cinematically to great success. Yet his latest offering Black Gold, depicting the dawn of the oil boom in the Arab states of the early 20th century, feels less like a depiction of such a historical period, and more like a satirical parody of the set of events that were set to change the world to how we now know it to be.
The story takes place in 1930's Arabia amidst the rise of the oil industry, focusing on how such a profitable discovery affected two rival Sultans Amar (Mark Strong) and Nesib (Antonio Banderas), the former a devout Muslim and traditionalist, the latter more progressive, with an eye on the profits that oil could provide.
The pair are brought together for the first time in years due to the oil boom, having formerly made a pact whereby they remain out of each other's way. As part of the calm agreement, Amar's two sons were left as hostages with Nesib, and it is the youngest Auda (Tahar Rahim) who is caught at the centre of the oil storm, as his allegiances are torn between his conservative father and the more liberal Nesib, both offering somewhat justifiable causes.
The decision from Nesib to allow Americans to use the land to export the oil causes a rift between neighbouring towns, and war breaks out. Auda must then decide whose side he must fight on, as he not only battles for freedom and peace, but for the love of his beautiful wife Princess Leyla (Freida Pinto), the daughter of Nesib.
Despite telling a quite important and contemporary tale which holds mush resonance with its audience, there are a host of annoyances and inconsistencies which prevent Black Gold from being the historical epic it sets out to be. One of the greater misgivings comes in the casting, as despite presenting a host of talented actors, it is difficult to look past the fact that none of them are actually Arabic. It was almost as if the casting director thought, "they're ethnic - they'll do". I mean, surely I don't need to be the one to point out that Banderas can't be Pinto's dad? She's Indian, and he's, well, not. The film is rife with insignificant but frustratingly niggling aspects, as Annaud seems determined to steer away from the factuality of the time in which this film is set.
When attempting to ignore such contradictions in the plot, there are still a host of frustrations that prevent Black Gold from truly working as a feature film, most of which are apparent in the terrible dialogue. I'm almost certain I heard Nesib call someone a "Son of a bitch". And how about the "Oh for God's sake" line? It's set in the desert in the 1930's for crying out loud., people didn't speak like that then. The worst however comes when Leyla makes a cheeky innuendo about losing her virginity on her wedding night when speaking to her Arab father and Sultan. I mean come on.
On a positive note, the performances are acceptable, and the lead Rahim is very impressive. It's not the first time we've seen him rise from nothing to being revered and feared as he does in A Prophet, but he plays it so well because he can be equally as vulnerable and naive as he can be fearless and unflinching. Banderas is also good, and alongside Riz Ahmed playing Auda's long-lost brother, adds a touch of light-heartedness to proceedings, although I'm unsure whether this is the actual intention. I was expecting Banderas to wink to the camera at one point.
The film also looks fantastic, filmed in the vast wilderness of Tunisia, it is colourful and vivacious, and the battle sequences look so daunting taking place against such surroundings, enhanced by the blurred vision caused by the dusty sand emanating from the hordes of fighting men and camels, adding a real authentic and quite intimidating atmosphere as it becomes quite difficult to make out what is going on.
Yet such positives are cut short, as the film is mostly unimpressive. It's full of clichés, it's immoderate and exaggerated, and all too 'Hollywood'. It's okay when a feature revels in its own fatuousness, but the film attempts to be serious and political and when counteracted by jovial inanity it just doesn't work. Really it should be much more historically accurate given the subject matter, but instead goes down the cinematic route. We've all seen lead protagonists worm their way out of the most unlikely of situations, somehow avoiding death when their sworn nemesis holds a gun to their head. But Annaud just takes it a step too far as Auda is literally shot in the head and he survives, feeling perfectly well in a matter of minutes. Shot... In the head!
Black Gold is not the film it wishes to be, as Annaud's picture is overstated and too long at a little over two hours, nevermind the fact it's entirely boring. One to avoid, I'd say.