|Image: Warner Bros.|
The epic’s a tough genre to get right. There’s a lot of risk involved. Too often filmmakers have come back from their endeavours with an overlong, over-earnest, humourless, stodgy mess that aims for greatness and misses the mark completely. The people behind Black Gold have been trying to get this film made for decades but have they got it right?
In a nameless Middle Eastern desert, feuding lords Emir (Antonio Banderas) and Amar (Mark Strong) make a truce: that no one will use the Yellow Belt, a patch of desert between their two kingdoms, and Emir takes Amar’s two sons to ensure the bargain is kept. But as the two sons reach adulthood, Emir finds oil under the Yellow Belt and starts drilling, which Amar views as an act of aggression. With neither side willing to back down, Amar’s bookish son Auda (Tahar Rahim) must make his own destiny.
Black Gold comes from director Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose best work remains the Sean Connery monk-detective film The Name of the Rose and the Robert De Niro-starring drama The Mission. His recent output, including Two Brothers and Enemy at the Gates, has been patchy, but he’s not a director you can dismiss. And although Black Gold is never quite as sweeping or as thrilling as it should be, there’s a lot to admire.
The story is somehow endearing in its familiarity: the quiet son forced to choose between two father figures before realising that he needs to cast both off to become the man he needs to be. Although the script is often a little simplistic and predictable, Annaud is helped immeasurably by the surprising but effective casting. Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) imbues his character with stoic intensity while Banderas has a lot of fun as his greedier, more venal counterpart. And if A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim occasionally looks a little lost under the weight of carrying the film (and acting in English), Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) is a joy as Auda’s wise-cracking brother Ali. It’s a shame that Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) isn’t given enough to do as Auda’s true love.
Sadly most of the surprises end with the casting, and at a slightly awkward two hours it has the unfortunate feeling of both being a little long and having under-developed characters. But the full-blooded turns from Strong, Banderas, and Ahmed help to propel the film through its more wooden moments, the desert-bound battle sequences between the old and the new methods of warfare are impressive, and it’s worth mentioning the enjoyably wicked sense of humour in the film’s digs at the West.
If not the great epic it wants to be, Black Gold is an entertaining, sweeping drama that benefits from good casting and an unexpected sense of humour.