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.