Despite its craven desire for political relevance, this longwinded handling of a fairly simple story feels tame and antiquated.
Set in the 1930s during the dawn of the oil trade in the Arabian Peninsula, Black Gold tells the coming-of-age tale of Auda (Tahar Rahim), a young Arabian prince whose loyalties are divided between his conservative father, Amar (Mark Strong), and his liberal father-in-law, Nesib (Antonio Banderas). The fathers clash when Nesib strikes a deal to sell oil from a piece of land called the Yellow Belt to some shady American business men.
The film wants to be seen as a sweeping, politically prophetic Arabian adventure, but comes off feeling strangely old fashioned as a result of unconvincing casting and a failure to bring a sophisticated modern perspective to the issue of the oil trade.
Filmed in Qatar, director Jean-Jacques Annaud employs the sublime inhospitality of the desert in epic fashion, with clear nods to films like Lawrence of Arabia. The photography is mostly impressive, especially the scenes in which hundreds of extras traipse across harsh desert to do battle. The film also evokes the Arab world and its Islamic customs with an keen eye, particularly when dealing with Nesib's daughter, Princess Layla, who later becomes Auda's love interest.
The producer of Black Gold, Ben Ammar, said his aim was to create a Hollywood-scale production but portray Arab culture and Islam with necessary understanding. This is a worthy intent for a piece of popular cinema, and largely Annaud treats the world of his story with amiable reverence.
The problem comes in the decision to cast Antonio Banderas as Nesib. Not only is Banderas one of the most famous Spanish-speaking actors in the world, but his strong accent (and not to mention the accent of Puss In Boots) is impossible to disguise.
The real problem, though, is that the film fails to tackle the clash between the oil trade and the traditional Arab culture with any real depth. It is easy to see the numerous ethical implications of the oil trade, but Annaud treats them all in a overly simplistic manner by turning the American oil men into whisky-swigging stereotypes. Had their culturally insensitive tactics been explored thoroughly, perhaps their characterisation would have seemed justified. What we are left with is an unrefined and judgemental portrayal.
While Black Gold was never likely to have been the Arabian equivalent of There Will Be Blood, it seems that in dealing with the clash of oil and religion a film must be assertive and clever. Black Gold, with its woefully miscast central characters and longwinded handling of a fairly simple story feels tame and antiquated, despite its craven desire for political relevance.
Arabia returns to the silver screen.
Too long to be truly fun and too undeveloped to justify its length.
A distinctly average adventure which has us wishing for more.