Black Gold is a tale of two houses in conflict over oil and ideology, at the brink of the oil boom in the early 20th century. The emirate of Hobeika is headed by the Emir Nesib (played by Antonio Banderas) who views the exploitation of oil as a way of ending his kingdom’s position “as a waiter at the banquet of the world”. Standing strong against Nesib’s ambitions is the Sultan Amar (played by Mark Strong), who risks anachronism by running his kingdom on honour and loyalty, opposing the extraction of oil and the foreign intervention that comes with it. In the Sultan’s own words: “anything that can be bought has no real value”.
The beginning of events on screen are the peace terms laid down by the victorious Nesib on the defeated Amar, following a war between the two kingdoms over the Yellow Belt – a desolate place that, unbeknown to the men at the time, is rich in oil. The terms of peace are that Nesib will “adopt” Amar’s two sons, thus guaranteeing that no man will invade the other, and that the Yellow Belt will belong to neither of the two kingdoms. The future discovery of oil in the Yellow Belt reveals that the two men’s visions of the future are irreconcilable and sets in motion the path of one of Amar’s sons, the timid and studious Auda (played by Tahar Rahim), who must choose his place between the two warring factions.
The film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose fascination of eastern ways pours all over the look and feel of every scene. At a time when our senses are inundated by tragic images of events in the Middle East, Annaud puts together a world of rugged, exotic beauty – whose inhabitants’ lives are intimately tied to the sand and Allah. This world is given life by a mostly Middle-Eastern or North African supporting cast, whose faces and mannerisms add that extra level of conviction to the plot’s setting. In addition, Annaud’s direction and Jean-Marie Dreujou’s photography shine through during the film’s white-knuckle desert battle scenes. The cinema screen’s aspect ratio is put to full use with epic shots capturing desert armory clashing with scimitar-wielding camel-riders.
Perhaps the film’s biggest draw though is Mark Strong’s portrayal of the Sultan Amar. Strong emits both rock-hard strength and vulnerability on screen, reflecting his character’s position as a warrior being left behind by a wealth-craving world. One of the film’s best moments is when Auda visits his home Sultanate for the first time in fifteen years to discuss with his father the fate of the Yellow Belt. Strong’s and Rahim’s father-son interaction elevates the film to a more human level, engaging the viewer in a debate about the cost of keeping to one’s values. The character appeal of these scenes is further increased by the presence of Ali (played by Riz Ahmed), Auda’s half-brother who is ostracised by the Sultan due to his forward-thinking views. Ahmed’s casting is inspired and his charisma endures throughout the film.
Strong’s acting though brings into focus an evident tension in Black Gold. Clearly, the attention to detail, the epic imagery and the gravitas of some of the acting point to the construction of a quality historical epic but, unfortunately, the film contains some elements which can only be described as a bit…Narnia.
Starting with the most obvious one of all, it is unclear why Antonio Banderas was cast as the Emir Nesib and why the portrayal of the character is tonally so different from the rest of the cast. While Banderas has proven that he can deliver in Latin roles, I fail to recall many instances where he has replicated that form for more foreign parts. This remains true for this film, where his credibility as an Arab Emir pales in comparison with that of Strong and most of the supporting cast. In contrast to Strong’s Sultan, Banderas’ Emir comes across as a camp fairy tale baddie (complete with humorous one-liners), who can’t be seen to be too evil in case the kids get scared. In this respect, the film lacks a true villain, which lessens the viewer’s suspense as to whether Auda will succeed.
The film’s fairytale sensibilities are also evident in the character of Leyla (played by Freida Pinto), Nesib’s daughter and Auda’s love interest. The script doesn’t give the viewer the opportunity to view Leyla as anything but a princess with a cliché love for a geek.
In many ways, Rahim’s performance in the film is caught between the two contrasting styles of the film. His performance in the The Prophet is evidence enough that Rahim is a great new talent and as mentioned above, his chemistry with Strong and Ahmed give the film character-led momentum. Unfortunately though, the script simply doesn’t give him enough to chew on and his emergence as a hero in the conflict feels a little contrived. Indeed, when a tribesman exclaims his surprise at “soft hands” Auda’s ability in warfare, the viewer is in agreement.
Deciding on whether to like this film is essentially a choice as to whether to treat it as a historical epic or a fantastical desert tale. As the former it falls short but as the latter it packs enough entertainment to remind us why we like going to the movies in the first place: good old fashioned escapism.
Black Gold hits cinemas 24th February 2012.
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Stars: Tahar Rahim, Mark Strong, Antonio Banderas
Runtime: 130 min
Country: France, Italy, Qatar