Black Gold

Black Gold

Static Mass Rating: 2/5
Warner Bros

Release date: February 24th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 12A
Running time: 130 minutes

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Writers: Menno Meyjes (screenplay), Hans Ruesch (novel)
Composer: James Horner

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Freida Pinto, Akin Gazi

In late 2010, just two months into the filming of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Arabian oil & war epic Black Gold, a Tunisian market vendor by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of his own mistreatment by local police and that of other social injustices. Filming in Tunisia at the time, none of the crew of Annaud’s film could have predicted the seismic changes that this single event would have on the Arab world over the next year. Causing a chain of events which would ultimately lead to revolution across neighbouring Arab States such as Iran, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, to name but a few.

Nor could any of the largely Tunisian crew have predicted quite how culturally & historically significant a film, like the one they were involved in, could end up being – the perfect storm for this film’s release, perhaps.

Alas, If only the film could deliver on its expectation.

Black Gold

Set in the early 20th century – we start the film in the immediate aftermath of a battle between two warring kingdoms in a stretch of Arabian dessert known as the Yellow Belt – a barren no-man’s land of seemingly little opportunity. As a result, a peace treaty is quickly drawn up in the sand in which they agree that no man can lay claim to the Yellow Belt. To further enforce this, the victorious Nesib (Antonio Banderas) is handed the two young sons of the defeated Amar (Mark Strong). This being something of a tribal tradition at the time and to ensure that no man can invade the other’s while this blood link exists.

However, there’s no spoiler in me telling you that, unbeknownst to them, this Yellow Belt is a bubblin’ with oil beneath. Or as our friends at the Texas oil company like to call it – the black gold. And it also isn’t long before these Texan oil tycoons start scratching around in the dirt looking for a way to start drilling.

As Nesib describes it -

“To be an Arab is to be a waiter at the banquet of the world.”

Based on the novel “South of the Heart” by Swiss writer Hans Ruesch – at its heart is the story of the young prince Auda (Tahaar Rahim) and his transition from boy to man set against a backdrop of oil, greed, war and religion and these two warring kingdoms.

Black Gold

Tahaar Rahim seems to be singlehandedly carving out a new genre for himself – the cometh the man genre – and for any of you who saw him in 2009’s French prison drama, Un Prophète, will know how brilliantly he can pull this off. But for me, this is perhaps partly where the film falls down. Annaud’s direction seems too overly enthused, too at pains to try and recapture the charisma that Rahim oozed so effortlessly in his previous film, that it at times feels forced. It also doesn’t help that Rahim – without doubt a very gifted young actor – is for the most part working with a script that felt like it had been passed through a Google Translation tool – not once, but twice – before landing with a thud on his doorstep.

And it’s the films overenthusiasm that ultimately lets it down. So self-consciously aware and eager of presenting the Arab world to a Hollywood audience – it begins to miss its target entirely. As a result, conversations morph from being a realistic dialogue between living breathing people, to becoming a series of sound-bites strung together by a focus group. We start to lose interest in the characters and at several points throughout the films 130 minute run time I was reminded of Carry On Follow That Camel – another swords, sand and sandals epic with an overuse of quotable one-liners, one might say.

Why do you always have to mock everything?
Because it’s easier.

Black Gold

But this isn’t to say the film’s without its strengths and there’s something enjoyably old-school about its production. With its refusal to pander to the public’s desire for the biggest and best CGI we get a real sense of experiencing cinema as it should be, with a cast of thousands – as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) might have been 50 years previously.

Unsurprisingly, Black Gold owes no small debt to this film classic.

And it’s also with this epic approach that brings the films battle scenes to life so well. These really are sit-up in your chair moments as we take in the action through Herve Schneid’s frenetic editing style and Annaud’s confidence with set-pieces.

So while certainly not a great film and at times not even breaching a good film, it is without doubt enjoyable in parts. It is also a significant film that will have it admirers and we hope, open the door for more positive depictions of Arab themes in cinema.

About Toby C Prior

Toby C Prior

Having successfully dropped out of Art College after 3 gruelling months back in the 90’s; Toby used this experience to its best advantage - by becoming an Online Content & Communications Manager in London.

Toby is still very much involved in the arts, and exercises his artistic demons by reviewing most of the good, bad and downright ugly that passes through London’s galleries and movie theatres.

Although a film enthusiast by heart, Toby also cites himself as being an ‘expert’ on the delta blues and is proudly credited as the musical force behind ill-fated schoolboy band The Pilgrims of Grace — “we were too good, too soon”. You can find Toby on Twitter @2by.