Dir. Jean Jacques Annaud, France/Italy/Qatar, 2011, 130 mins
Review by Carol Allen
Jean Jacques Annaud has an impressive track record in large scale epics – Enemy at the Gates, Seven Years in Tibet, The Name of the Rose, Quest for Fire – which stands him in good stead here. The film looks really good with its spectacular desert panoramas and ever present camels and the story itself starts off in an interesting way. Hans Ruesch’s 1957 novel The Great Thirst; on which it is based, is set in the thirties, which is when oil was first discovered in the Arabian peninsula, though it you didn’t know that, the film doesn’t really make clear exactly where in history we are. A little more information about the outside world via the character of Thurkettle (Corey Johnson), the Texan oil man, who is after the riches beneath the desert sand, would have been useful, contrasting it with the lifestyle of the Bedouin Sultans, unchanged for centuries.
At first we are led to expect that the story is going to be about the discovery of the “black gold” and the effect that is going to have on the Bedouin culture, as we meet Nesib, Emir of Hobeika (Banderas), who is making plans for using the new found wealth to better the lives of his people. We have however already learned that Nesib’s kingdom and that of his rival Amar (Strong), who is Sultan of the nearby desertland of Salmaah, have long been in conflict. Peace has only been kept by the fact that Amar’s two sons have been held hostage since boyhood and raised in the court of Nesib. The story swiftly abandons any examination of the social and cultural implications of the black gold and chooses to concentrate on the now re-emerging war between Nesib and Amar, in which Amar’s younger son Auda (Rahim) plays a central role, and for the next two hours gets bogged down in too many beautifully and spectacularly staged but ultimately repetitive battle scenes.
There is something distinctly old fashioned about this film, maybe because the producer has been trying to get it made since the seventies. Something of that decade or earlier is ever present in its epic concept and treatment. One almost expects Omar Sharif, who was originally going to star in it way back then, to appear over the horizon at any moment. The young characters are though interesting and well played. Rahim (The Prophet) as Auda, who is the hero of the film, makes a convincing transformation from rather geeky scholar to warrior and demonstrates he has the weight to carry a big lead role. Riz Ahmed as his eccentric doctor half brother brings a nice sense of irony and intelligence to his characterization and makes a big impression in a supporting role. Freida Pinto however is wasted in a very passive “girl” role.
Banderas and Strong both give good performances but, while both have successfully played Arab roles in previous films – Banderas in The 13th Warrior and Strong in Body of Lies – their characters in those were in their different ways less embedded in their Arab culture. Their presence here, particularly in the context of the ethnic casting of the rest of the characters, seems again old fashioned. Dramatically the basic moral conflict between Nesib (pragmatic materialist) and Amar (old fashioned noble Bedouin values) doesn’t really come to the fore until near the end of the film, when Nesib is then made to seem a bit of a villain. There is though a neat touch to the final role allotted to him by Auda, which is one of the few elements of the film which make it feel as though it is made for a contemporary audience. But it is by then a little late in the day.