By Maryann O’Connor
Black Gold is a story about two leaders in Arabia, Amar (Mark Strong) and Nesib (Antonio Banderas) warring over land which is latterly discovered to contain a considerable reserve of Crude Oil. It has all the ingredients for a film of epic proportions, including a director (Jean-Jacques Annaud) and producer (Tarak Ben Ammar) who said they were determined to create a real picture of that time and not just a glossy, Hollywood version of events. Sadly, the promise seems to remain in the original undeveloped story.
The initial battle, fought between Nesib, Emir of Hobeika and Amar, Sultan of Salmaah, came to an end with an agreement that neither man would lay claim to the Yellow Belt of land which lay between their two kingdoms. Nesib ‘adopts’ Amar’s two young sons as a guarantee of this and they grow up in Holbeika, treated the same as Nesib’s own son.
Fifteen years later, we come to the real meat of the story. A Bad American man named Thurkettle (Corey Johnson) rocks up at Nesib’s door and says there’s oil in them there hills: Nesib could be very, very rich. Even though the oil’s in the Yellow belt, which he had agreed not to touch, Nesib decides that he might as well take the chance to play catch up with The West. This decision plays havoc with the fragile peace brokered with Amar and produces a very awkward situation for Amar’s two sons, Princes Saleeh and Auda. After some lacklustre negotiations another battle eventually starts, with surprising consequences for everyone involved; especially ‘bookworm’ Prince Auda, who has to leave his library and get tactical.
The film is extremely ambitious: there is a lot of horse and camel action, utilising the landscapes of Tunisia and Qatar to produce stunning shots of the desert which will make you feel thirsty just to look at them. The impenetrability of the desert is portrayed well, as is the useless nature of certain tools and weapons of war in such an environment. However, all of this is accompanied by a score from James Horner which only fits well at times and is not particularly inspiring.
I think I see what Annaud and Ammar were trying to achieve here but sadly they didn’t quite manage it: Black Gold could have been a real opportunity to discuss the impact of progress and why people like Amar and Nesib, in turn, rejected and embraced it. Oil produced the money to create public services, develop/afford medicines and buy weapons but the negative aspects of progress, especially where the smaller tribes were concerned, were just hinted at and ultimately glossed over.
The performances were mixed. Banderas played Nesib well, remembering not to be Spanish for most of the film. Mark Strong was suitably stoic as the Sultan determined to resist the march of progress but is not pictured as much as Banderas; much of the action took place in the desert or Hobeika. His character seemed dense at times rather than wise and would have benefited from further examination of his motives. Riz Ahmed, playing Prince Auda’s ‘long lost’ brother Ali, was probably my favourite actor, taking the prized position as cynical wildcard of the story. Freida Pinto (as Nesib’s daughter) performed her role as a caged bird with ease and delivers some of the cheesiest lines you will have heard for a while but does reveal a slightly steelier side at times. Tahar Rahim was passable as Prince Auda but it wasn’t really clear what he thought about any of it or why he ends up being instrumental to the story. For me, he was quite uninspiring.
If it is as Annaud and Ammar say and the novel (that Black Gold was based on) had universal appeal/was the perfect adventure, I think the majority of the failure here should be borne by the screenwriters (Annaud was one). The casting is also a little strange: although Prince Auda was played by someone of Arabian extraction, the other two main roles were played by Europeans. Black Gold is a bit of a damp and extended squib (130 minutes) with patches of enlightenment which are not really expanded upon. A shaky three torches.