Here is one of those strange mid-budget epics which seems destined not to be seen by many people; a real curio from director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Then again, from the director who followed up Seven Years in Tibet with Enemy at the Gates and then Two Brothers, perhaps we should expect the unexpected.
Black Gold is the story of oil-inspired disputes in the Arab states in the 1930s, when Americans (portrayed here as drawling Texan money-grabbers with almost no screen time) moved in to make the Sultans, and themselves, rich. Antonio Banderas, playing Sultan Nesib, asks “How rich, exactly?” and sees opportunity in the oil fields hidden beneath the contested Yellow Belt territory to improve the lives of his people. He bemoans his existence as a poor king. To be a Sultan in Arabia, he says, is to be “a waiter at the table of the world.” The film’s script occasionally throws pleasing curveballs like this the audience’s way.
Opposite Nesib is Sultan Amar (Mark Strong), who we are introduced to as he is reluctantly giving his two young sons over to Nesib as part of a peace deal. The treaty will make the contested Yellow Belt a neutral zone, free of conflict. Those two sons, in particular the youngest brother, Auda (Un Prophète’s Tahar Rahim) become the film’s protagonists.
After a first act which struggles to maintain its voice, dipping here and there into both sentiment and comedy, the film begins to find its feet. Tahar Rahim, who is 30, somehow convinces as a very young prince, and his transformation into an adult frames both the film’s narrative and its own progression from unsure beginnings into something more confident in itself.
In some ways the film is messy, inconsistent in its tone (at times Banderas seems to be in a different film, only to remember where he is and fall back in line) and occasionally a little wishy-washy for its own narrative good. Freida Pinto, as Princess Leyla, Auda’s lost childhood love, is largely wasted, reduced in the first act to forlornly gazing out of a window. When she’s at last given some proper scenes, and her character begins to come through, the mechanics of the story serve to keep her screen time minimal. Mark Strong, as conservative Sultan Amar – wary of ‘infidel technology’ and not believing in money – gives a good performance here, although the cast list in general does beg the question as to why more of the lead roles weren’t given to Arab actors.
While a plot contrivance late in the day ensures that an opportunity for a climactic battle sequence is not wasted, the film is not really an action epic, but a sweeping story about belief sets in the Arab world. At times the themes actually come across quite strongly, even if they are sporadically layered on a little thick, and the film doesn’t try your patience nearly as much as you might think after 30 or 40 minutes. There are instances when the narrative veers off course, but it always looks pleasant enough and the score, although it shoots for epic too often, is effective. If you give it a chance, the film manages to just about hang together, and when the strongest performances – Rahim, Strong and Riz Ahmed (introduced fairly late on but worth the wait) – are given time to breathe, it’s actually quite likable at times.