In one of several iconic moments from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali is introduced riding through the desert, appearing first in longshot, as a dot on the horizon, then a haze, and finally pulling into close-up, as an Arab on a horse - a potent visual analogue for the way the film's white English hero eventually comes to find a focal point amid the blinding light and stinging dust of the colonies. In the forty years since, Hollywood has fallen prey to what we might call NSE (Non-Specific Ethnicity), and its movies have travelled in the opposite direction, lumbering back towards haziness, the indistinct.
A prime example of this is Jean-Jacques Annaud's latest Black Gold, one of those epics that looks less impressive the closer one gets to it. It begins with a caravan of men on camels trekking through a desert represented by helicopter shots of shifting sands - all very grandiose, on a superficial level, until Annaud cuts to his first close-up, and we realise the most powerful men in all Arabia, squabbling over the reserves of oil beneath the sands that began to be tapped as the 20th century dawned, will be played by the Spaniard Antonio Banderas (still struggling to throw off his purring Puss in Boots persona, even in a headdress) and Britain's Mark Strong (a repeat offender in this field, however skilled he may be).
Maybe that's what you get from a film directed by a Frenchman, and adapted by a Dutchman (Menno Meyjes) from a Swiss writer (Hans Ruesch)'s novel. The French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim is the closest Black Gold gets to geographic exactitude, as the scholar born to Strong yet handed over to Banderas as part of a treaty (and later returning to his real dad as an emissary of peace); we have to make do with the British-Asian actress Freida Pinto as a not-so-local Scheherazade. Perhaps because the crux of Ruesch's material is men sitting round on carpets negotiating, Annaud chooses the exotic over the precise at every other opportunity: a palette of saturated yellows for the day scenes, and dark blues for the nights, as though these were the only colours one might observe in the Middle East.
The approach intoxicates for a while. Both Annaud (The Bear) and Meyjes (Max) tend to favour the kind of film nobody else is making - cynics might add with good reason - and Black Gold's hotchpotch DNA contains both commercial and flagrantly uncommercial elements that leave it an interesting failure, at least. As an epic, it demonstrates an interest of sorts in this region's progress: that of an empire shifting, like the sands, from kestrels and camels to planes and tanks and cars. (Rahim and Pinto share a parting tryst in one of the latter: the location, and the presence of a James Horner score, suggests Annaud was aiming for Titanic-like sweep.)
Furthermore, a debate within the script over how best to interpret the Koran - whether to use it to defend tradition and justify bloodshed, or to encourage modernity, tolerance and peace - seems to suggest Western movies are finally waking up to the idea the Middle East isn't a faraway-mythical kingdom we hear tales about on the news, but a real place, with real people and real beliefs, and potentially a very real and very viable marketplace in the longer term, if the popular revolutions take hold. The trouble here is that, in the short term, Annaud appears less concerned with this than with shooting such swoony fripperies as Pinto - eyes closed, lips slightly agape - listening to songs of love; and the dialogue Meyjes arrives at for his characters is right out of a purple-prose novel: everyone speaks in parables and pronouncements, to be recorded for later use. The film's framework is sturdy and serious-minded, but what fills it is often flimsy and silly - and I think we have the right to expect more from something this lavish.
The actors might have hoped for better, too, stuck in roles that barely outscale the camels they ride in on. Certainly, this isn't much of a showcase for Rahim, the breakthrough star of 2009's A Prophet, playing what's in effect a bespectacled dog caught between two masters. Still, at least he fares better than Riz Ahmed, who gets to trot about on a donkey as a smart-assed doctor, the Meyjes-Annaud idea of comic relief; actual Arab performers come in further down the cast list, in the guise of cannon fodder, religious zealots and stuttering court advisors. The last (and best informed) word on Black Gold ought to go to our friends in the Arab world, who've had to endure seeing their history caricatured on a dismayingly regular basis; while Annaud's take on the region is rather more sophisticated, seasoning the material with appreciable quantities of saffron and jasmine, it remains a hefty and somewhat indigestible portion of codswallop.
Black Gold opens in selected cinemas today.