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16 February, 2012

Black Gold

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud - Run time: 130 mins

Review by Bill Harrington

A romantic and engrossing, if not necessarily accurate, account of how the oil industry was founded in the Arabian peninsula , Black Gold resembles jolly historical adventures of earlier cinema eras. The resemblance is both its weakness and to a greater degree its strength.  

The film begins with Nesib (Antonio Banderas), Emir of Hobeika, victorious in battle over the neighbouring Sultan of Salmaah, played by Mark Strong. Terms for peace are arrived at – Salmaah's two boys will be taken hostage by Nesib and raised as his own sons, in accordance with Arab tradition and to guarantee neither will threaten each other's lands again. In addition, a barren expanse of desert between the kingdoms, known as the Yellow Belt, is designated a no-man's land. Nesib initially honours his side of the bargain and raises the two boys alongside his daughter as if they were his own blood, their upbringing being nimbly portrayed. A caring but materialistic ruler, Nesib decries his kingdom's inability to adequately care for his subjects, particularly with regards to their health and education, so when a Texan oil company demonstrates that the Yellow Belt land is actually rich with resources and could benefit all peoples of the region, Nesib takes the generally benevolent decision to exploit it. However this once again pits him against his devout neighbour, who is rigidly committed to the original treaty terms, and ultimately against the young man he raised but whose allegiance remains to his natural father and to his faith.

Black Gold has had a torturous journey to the screen. The producer first attempted to raise the finance to film the source novel “South of the Heart” (by Hans Ruesch) back in 1976, and subsequent attempts over the decades fell flat until, romantically enough, a Qatari princess saw in it an opportunity to establish a nascent film industry in her homeland. With veteran French director Jean-Jacques Annaud already committed to the project, producer Tarak Ben Ammar finally had sufficient backing to commence filming what had become a 34 year old personal mission. What he's achieved is a film that frequently threatens to teeter into either absurdity or cliché. There are times where you feel yourself bracing for a cringe-worthy moment, and it duly arrives. Yet before it has too detrimental an effect on the film, the story has swiftly and enjoyably moved on. The script in particular is corny enough to do real damage. It doesn't, because in a film as honestly old-fashioned as this, the incident and the drive of the story are what matters and Black Gold has both in abundance.

Perhaps justifiably Banderas doesn't seem to take matters too seriously. The twinkle in his eye suggests he knows this is actually a bit of a lark and he lends humour accordingly to his role, in addition to some rather frequent and puzzling growling. Mark Strong is rather more dignified in both character and performance. Freida Pinto is pretty good as the playful yet faithful Princess Leyla, although I was less convinced by Tahar Rahim as the once reluctant protagonist who eventually attains a status far greater than that of his father(s), his more aggressive brother, or the courtiers who once mocked or underestimated him. Does that sound familiar? Yes, some aspects of Black Gold are essentially The Godfather on camel back. An additional pleasure is a James Horner score that is fairly typical of his older and in my view much more enjoyable oeuvre.

In many ways Black Gold, with its international cast, plush yet slightly tacky design and wonky script, reminded me of a thoroughly enjoyable TV spectacular you would watch over two nights in the mid 1980s. This is not to say it’s best viewed on the box either. Far from it. I enjoyed the cinema screening immensely. Its running time is 130 minutes but I've sat through many a shorter film that has felt much longer and entertained far less.