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Film review: Black Gold

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Vying for space in an already crowded Blockbuster battle for 2012 is Black Gold, a cinematic epic in the classic sense of the word that harks back to the Golden Age of Cinema.

Black GoldIt is a grand attempt from the Qatar film industry to battle with the Hollywood big-boys, but one that, for all its grandeur, falls a little short.

This desert-epic focuses on the sparring of two warring leaders, and an agreement that no one owns a strip of land called ‘The Yellow Belt’. Nesib, Emir of Hobeika (Antonio Banderas), bodies of their warriors litter the battlefield. The victorious Nesib lays down his peace terms to his rival Amar, Sultan of Salmaah (Mark Strong). The two men agree that neither may lay claim to the area of no man’s land. In return and according to the tribal customs of the time, Nesib will “adopt”- or take hostage- Amar’s two boys Saleeh (Akin Gaz) and Auda (Tahar Rahim); a guarantee that neither man can invade the other. Years later, Saleeh and Auda have grown into young men. Saleeh, the warrior, itches to escape his gilded cage and return to his father’s land. Auda cares only for books and the pursuit of knowledge. One day, their adopted father Nesib is visited by an American oil man from Texas (Corey Johnson). He tells the Emir that his land is blessed with oil and promises him riches beyond his imagination.

And from here the story unfolds…

Black Gold plays the neat trick of offering a narrative that will engage mass-audiences, built of love and basic power struggles whilst dipping its story-telling pond into a series of deep and thought-provoking issues such as faith, education, the perils of both traditional and progressive thinking and the greed of capitalism. The fact that it merely glosses over these points is both a plus in that it won’t bore viewers with no interest in issue-based cinema and a negative in that for all its potential to be food for the mind it is merely a snack.

Costing a staggering 55 million dollars there are aspects that look a little, well, cheap – the sets look a little low-budget for a spend of this magnitude. But where Black Gold succeeds is in the stunning scenery of the desert – shot on location, there’s no blue-screens or CGI here, the battle scenes transport you directly into the sandy wasteland of the desert. And these scenes are beautifully shot.

Much of the final product does come across as the work of a film industry finding its feet, with choppy editing and, at times, a lack of visual focus.

The casting also seems confused and slapdash. The distinctly Latino looking, and sounding, Antonio Banderas flops as an Arab king – why would an Arab have a Spanish accent? English actor Mark Strong, with his dirtied face still looks like an English man playing an Arab, and whilst perfectly beautiful Frieda Pinto’s star dims with her light-weight role.

But it’s not all bad Tahar Rahim plays a wonderfully understated hero and Riz Ahmed steals the show with a natural performance filled with excellent comic-timing and subtle humour.

Black Gold, all in all, could benefit from it finding its own voice instead of trying to be a Hollywood film made elsewhere, there is no need to shoe-horn Hollywood actors into the mix for example.

For all its issues Black Gold is still an entertaining watch, providing a desert-world to lose yourself in for a couple of hours. This may not be perfect cinema but it is great escapism.

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