Black Gold review

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud has been knocking around for years, and his varied output always looks good and is confidently rendered. From Quest for Fire to Two Brothers, not forgetting the superb The Name Of The Rose, the elegant and sexy The Lover or the solid Enemy at the Gates among his efforts, he is at home in different countries and in different centuries, his efforts often beautifully filmed but not always with solid dramatic credentials.
 
His latest is about warring Arab factions in the early 20th century and in some ways harkens back to those big international epics of the '60s like El Cid. The plodding pace and risible dialogue are certainly reminiscent of those widescreen historical opuses. But at least they had a strong leading man like Charlton Heston to carry them through the torpid scripts. No such luck here unfortunately.
 
The hero is weakling Auda (Rahim), a bespectacled scholar given up by his father Amar, the Sultan of Salmaah (Strong) as a peace deal to settle the land dispute over the Yellow Belt, the vast tract of desert that lies between Amar and Nesib, the Emir of Hobeika (gravel voiced Banderas). Auda and his brother are brought up by Nesib and are present when he is approached by a Texan oilman asking for drilling rights to the Yellow Belt. Much oil is underneath and proves vastly profitable to Nesib's kingdom. He embraces modernity with his riches by erecting new buildings, installing electricity and building up a vast array of weaponry.
 
He'll certainly need it as Amar is resistant to Western influence, believing that Nesib has reneged on their deal of 15 years ago. Who can broker a truce to try and stop the two leaders going to war? Auda of course. He makes contact with his father again and falls under his spell. But where do his loyalties really lie? Especially as he is in love with Nesib's daughter Leyla (beautiful Pinto is the insipid romantic interest).
 
No matter, war does indeed break out and this provides the narrative with its most effective passage. Visually it's most impressive, as we see Nesib's tanks rolling across the sand dunes and firing on Amar's poor tribesmen, who have not yet embraced technology. The skirmishes depicted are very skillfully done. But the tug-of-war scheming between the protagonists never becomes engaging. This is partly because Auda remains resolutely dull throughout. We never see the character stir fully or his conversion to warrior persuasively. Rahim is devoid of the charisma he displayed in A Prophet. He underplays too much here - more fire and passion is required.
 
The same could be said for the movie as a whole. Despite being well made and watchable, it's also slowgoing and overlong, never compelling or emotive enough to make you care.

Black Gold at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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