Jean-Jacques Annaud’s latest directorial effort, Black Gold, take us to the Arab States in the 1930s at the dawning of the oil boom. We are told of two rival leaders – the progressive moderniser, Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas) and the more conservative, Sultan Amar (Mark Strong), who make a pact that neither can occupy the area between their two kingdoms, known as The Yellow Belt. In order to seal this agreement, Amar’s sons are sent to live with Nesib, as a guarantee that war would not break out. However, several years later, the discovery of oil in The Yellow Belt re-ignites old tensions and questions family loyalties.
Black Gold is story packed full of political dealings, action sequences and human interest, however, some of these elements are more successful than others. Annaud shows real competence in creating a tense political landscape, where conflict could break out at any possible moment – this makes for gripping viewing from the onset. Menno Meyjes screenplay is superbly layered and expertly shows how smaller inner conflicts break out into full scale war – mainly through the death of one of Amar’s sons. When full-scale conflict does break out Annaud’s direction is of epic-proportions filled with sweeping desert shots and huge, well choreographed battle sequences. Black Gold is made in a similar style to the classic Hollywood epics of earlier years like Ben-Hur, Cleopatra and most directly, Lawrence of Arabia (even at points the score is somewhat reminiscent of Maurice Jarr’s). The high production value (which you would expect from the estimated €40000000 budget), without doubt makes this a magnificent visual experience.
Unfortunately, one cannot help but be put off by the almost disingenuous ‘human interest’ side of the story. We are expected to believe Amar’s son, Princa Auda (played by A Prophet star Tahir Rahim), a staunch pacifist who’s role is that of a bumbling librarian, manages to ascend to become a great war leader, commanding several hundreds of soldiers. To make matters even less believable, Frieda Pinto’s princess character obviously falls head-over-heels in love with Rahim’s unconvincing librarian. Each line of dialogue between the two characters feels drenched with clichés and is no doubt responsible for the lack of chemistry between the pair.
This tiresome human ‘heart’ of the story does not focus too heavily and Black Gold soon gets back on track with some stunning action or gripping political intrigue. Annaud also dives into elements of the survival story when we see Auda’s army starved of water in the desert, with some particularly gruesome visuals. This survival theme works well alongside the epic concept of the Old Middle East against the New Middle East laced with elements of corruption, greed and war and peace.
Much of the joy of Black Gold comes from some highly entertaining performances. Antonio Banderas, in particular, is a joy to watch. Banderas exudes an old most Bond-villain like charm as he chews through the scenery – he is the character that we want to see on screen. It’s almost as if he were training for a pantomime role in Aladdin – maybe as a backup if the work starts to dry up? Mark Strong is also rather convincing as Amar, bringing a sense of nobility and wisdom to the role. Tahir Rahim shines at certain moments but it is generally rather difficult to accept him in this flawed and poorly developed role. It is also rather clear that Frieda Pinto is simply there to look pretty as the enchanting Arabian princess as she is giving nothing of notice to do.
Black Gold is truly a film of epic proportions, it is visually magnificent and Annaud shows a clear skill when it comes to political intrigue or huge scale battle sequences. The well layered script from Menno Meyjes allows for some wonderfully entertaining performances from Antonio Banderas and Mark Strong. However, the more human side of the story is the downfall of Black Gold, but despite this I was still gripped by this film and striking homage to the time of the classic epic.
Reviewer: Andrew McArthur
Stars: Tahir Rahim, Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong & Frieda Pinto
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Release: 24th February (UK)