out of Five
Running time: 140
Black Gold is handsomely shot and musters up a decent finale but the dialogue is dreadful, the direction drags, the performances are uneven and there's a strong sense that the fictionalised story is less interesting than the reality.
What's it all about?
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, Black Gold is based on a novel (Arab by Hans Ruesch) and stars Antonio Banderas as Emir Nesib, a powerful king in 1930s Arabia, who raises the two sons (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim as Auda and Akin Gazi as Saleh) of his defeated enemy Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) as part of a fragile peace treaty that includes an agreement to leave the “Yellow Belt” of disputed land untouched by both parties. However, when oil is discovered in the Yellow Belt, Nesib breaks the treaty in order to make lucrative deals with the Americans and thereby modernise the Arab states by building schools and hospitals.
With Amar threatening war, educated Auda is sent by his adopted father to negotiate with his real father, in the hope of brokering peace. Initially, he is married off to his childhood sweetheart, Nesib's daughter Leyla (Freida Pinto), but their marriage fails to cement a political alliance and the tribes are soon in conflict.
The performances are something of a mixed bag: Rahim is excellent as the bookish Auda and Strong is reliably solid as Amar, but Banderas hams it up (while not bothering to attempt an Arab accent, so he sounds Spanish throughout) and Pinto is as wooden as always (there's no chemistry at all between her and Rahim, so the romantic subplot is swiftly sidelined). That said, Riz Ahmed injects a much needed note of humour as Auda's wise-cracking half-brother Ali, but in doing so, he gives the impression that he's in a different film to everyone else.
The dialogue is atrocious throughout, with the increasingly clunky lines alternating between dull and laughably bad (and not in a good way). In addition, Annaud's direction is sluggish throughout, although things do pick up in the last twenty minutes or so with an exciting, action-packed battle sequence.
There's an undeniably fascinating story to be told about the dawn of the oil boom, but sadly, this isn't it and it's ultimately impossible to shake the idea that the reality is far more interesting than the fictionalised version we get here. Similarly, the film's admirable decision to focus on the Arab side of the story is rather undermined by the fact that they've cast almost entirely non-Arab characters in all the lead roles.
Black Gold is a disappointing drama that never really strikes the emotional oil its drilling for, thanks to a dull script, sluggish direction and some uneven performances.