Black Gold **

The prospect of another, more contemporary Lawrence of Arabia that focuses on relevant current affairs in the region today, and with big acting names involved is an attractive proposition, especially as Black Gold has been producer Tarak Ben Ammar’s long-time goal by bringing the finer points of Hans Ruesch’s rousing novel South Of The Heart to the big screen – all directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (Enemy at the Gates, Seven Years in Tibet). The reality though is a dull, dusty, overly long epic attempt that has jarring and frankly odd sporadic bouts of humour in a story that is primarily of a serious nature.

Set in the 1930s Arab states at the dawn of the oil boom, the story centres on a young, bookish Arab prince, Auda (Tahar Rahim) who is taken with his older brother as collateral in a peace-keeping pact between the charismatic Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas) and his conservative father Sultan Amar (Mark Strong). When Western interest flags the possibility of oil in the heart of a ‘no man’s land’ area agreed by both tribes as part of the peace process, Prince Auda finds himself torn between allegiance to Sultan Amar and his modern, liberal father-in-law. To complicate matters further, Auda is married to his childhood sweetheart, Princess Leyla (Freida Pinto), and the daughter of Nesib who uses their alliance to his benefit.

Such films set in such environments require a certain breathing space to enter that world and realise the passions that drive the culture. Annaud is sensitive to this need to immerse the modern-day (Western) audience as such, and he builds a distinguishing picture between the old and new ways of both factions. There are also some wonderful, (if déjà vu) panoramic fighting vistas that capture the spirit of Arabia.

However, a downside of all this is the inevitable clichéd script, unnecessary obvious plot flags and nauseating worldly morals about West and East needing to learn much from each other. Rahim as Auda spends much of his time in his own thoughts for the first part of the film – or in a book, or biting his tongue, that it feels there is genuinely little connection established between us and him to warrant feeling the heart of his struggle and rallying behind this unusual leader. It is only with the assistance of ‘joker’ character, half brother Ali (Riz Ahmed) that we get any greater sense of how Auda ticks to truly care, and Ahmed turns out to be the most intriguing watch of the whole thing.

What is also off putting is the mixture of accents, with playful Banderas complete with Spanish tongue simply coming across as Banderas dressing up in Arabic dress for the thrill of playing a greedy oil baron. It’s unclear whether the humour that exudes from this character’s presence is intentional or not, or just a result of Banderas overly camping up his contribution, and hence detracting from the really interest points of corruption, greed and power of the region the film attempts to tackle. As for Strong, his stoic, leaderly acumen always produces a credible performance in whichever role he takes on, but we don’t get to see too much of it in this – and sadly far much more of doe-eyed, pouting Pinot who does little in the shape of any real acting, and is merely the glamour shot.

A contemporary Lawrence of Arabia, Black Gold it is not because it’s not beating with any passionate heart around the issues, merely pulsing with crude oil moments, misplaced humour and copycat desert fight scenes.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

The Way Back – 3*

With highly respected film-maker Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) behind a new adventure, you know you are in for a visually stunning treat, born of meticulous planning and hard graft to get it factually right. The Way Back is no exception to the Weir catalogue of cinematic triumphs, a sumptuous film adaptation based on the equally fascinating true story of a 4,500-mile trek against nature’s odds by seven escaped prisoners from Stalin’s Siberian Gulag in 1940.

Weir spares no expense in the grand scheme of things, whilst managing to convey the intricate personal stories of all his characters, played by an intriguing variety of acting talent. Jim Sturgess is Janusz, a polish national who falls foul of Stalin’s ideals, opposite Colin Farrell as the dangerous and blade-obsessed street criminal Valka. Ed Harris is American prisoner Mr. Smith, a man of few words, alongside the only female lead in the film, The Lovely Bones star Saoirse Ronan as runaway Polish orphan Irena. Harris and Ronan develop a convincingly tender father-daughter relationship, in the midst of the harshest of living conditions – both on and off set – that makes Weir’s film even more compelling, as Irena unlocks each man’s inner personality.

Indeed, the four leads deliver some exceptional performances, and some of the best of their respective careers, which is hardly surprising, given the rich subject matter and history at their disposal. In fact, this is an enlightening history lesson with lots of danger and action on its own about a period that’s often overlooked in the classroom, in favour of Nazi domination in mainland Europe at the time. Therefore, it can be argued that it’s hard to detract your feelings about the then-realities, from whether or not this is a good film.

As journeys on film go – and there haven’t been many epic ones, the likes of Lawrence of Arabia or Out of Africa in decades, unless you count Australia by Weir’s countryman Luhrmann, The Way Back is one that sounds incredulous, had it not been based on truth. This entanglement of truth and fiction shows the power of Weir’s storytelling skill, as well as his commendable casting.

Admittedly, the lead performances are strong on their own, but are helped by an excellent supporting cast of foreign actors that provide some of the lighter moments in the film; Romanian Alexandru Potocean is wise-cracking accountant, Tomasz who likens eating snake to eating a “big black poisonous chicken with no legs”. Weir nicely balances these very detailed human exchanges in the face of adversity with the wider ones, to avoid pretension and possible tedium. However, as with such a film, it does suffer from flatter moments, as you wait for the next thing thrown at the group, even with yet another breathtaking panoramic wide to feast on.

Weir fans will not be disappointed, though, and fans of the cast members will be equally impressed, too. This is solid, old-school epic film-making that is deeply affecting with its captivating human spirit, and makes for a welcome break from the incessant 3D out there.

3/5 stars

By L G-K