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A young Arab prince is torn between two fathers, two outlooks on life and two sides of a war in Jean-Jacques Annaud's drama set at the start of the 1930s oil boom. Starring Antonio Banderas
The Muppets recently came under criticism by a Fox Business Channel pundit for being "anti-oil". But perhaps his ire would have been better directed at Black Gold. Whether or not Kermit's froggy shadow looms over this epic drama, set around the discovery of oil during the 1930s, its plot is extremely timely and its themes pretty controversial.
To launch straight into a critique of the film would be unfair, and to deny director Jean-Jacques Annaud and producer Tarak Ben Ammar their due for what they were attempting: a resurrection of an epic style from the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood and a presentation of Islamic culture not often seen in Western blockbusters. Despite these lofty intentions it falls very short, and their dreams of a whimsical epic are lost somewhere in the sand dunes of the (admittedly striking) Qatari landscape.
The tale of a shy Arab prince raised by his father's enemy, a beguiling princess and their warring families may sound romantic, but somehow Menno Meyjes' script gets it all wrong. Losing sight of what was important in Hans Reusch's source novel The Great Thirst - i.e. human morality - Black Gold flounders after a so-so opening. An appalling pace leaves the film in the desert for far too long, totally setting aside the character development that was just starting to blossom. Crucially, at this point you're still not really sure what point is being made or whether you should support Prince Auda's allegiance to the more conservative of his two patriarchs.
But at least the prince, played by Tahar Rahim with doe-eyed sadness, seems more-or-less like a real person - it's Antonio Banderas who acts like the cackling villain from a family adventure movie. If he missed the memo that this was a serious film, so did the sound production team who saw fit to provide a chirpy, playful score that may as well be from The Mummy franchise and sits uncomfortably over the film like oil on water. It's all rather ramshackle, with characters explaining key plot points or information about the Islamic faith purely for the audience's sake.
Given the lack of momentum, the film drags itself across the finish line leaving a fair few plot strands to dangle in the breeze. It's difficult to truly condemn a film that started out as a twinkle in the eye of an idealistic young man, but Annaud has cherry-picked the worst of Hollywood's epics (boring battles, pomposity, style over substance) and none of the good. Where did that love story go for a whole hour? What about the otherworldly beauty of that desert citadel, why can't we see more of that? Given the blood that has been shed over both oil and religion, this was a film that needed a firmer hand.
It might look good but it's an anachronism that totally loses its way in the desert. Given the director's enthusiasm, Black Gold should have sparkled.
Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House celebrates its 10th anniversary this August with 14 nights of open-air screenings Celebrating ten years of classic, cult, and contemporary films in its open-ai
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On Channel 4: 20 April 2014