In Hollywood’s hands, this would have been a US-centric story about the foreign adventures of Texan oil men. With European money, a French director and Tunisian producer however, the discovery of oil remains the catalyst, but the response of different Arab leaders marks the substance of the drama. Although the time frame’s the early twentieth century, feudal power still holds sway, as Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas) exploits the oil deposits to begin modernisation, while his more devout rival Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) demands a shut-down, fearing social contamination with an inevitable influx of infidels. Caught in the middle is Auda (‘A Prophet’ star Tahar Rahim), Amar’s son, who’s been raised by Nesib as part of an earlier peace treaty. This time though, conflict looms.
As indeed does the ghost of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, as director Jean-Jacques Annaud marshals thousands of extras for spectacular, refreshingly CGI-free desert battle scenes, all of which go for relatively little because the script’s loath to take sides. In its eagerness to reflect a broad span of Arab opinion, the film sees good and ill in both rival rulers, a narrative approach unsuited for a would-be epic, since we watch with resolutely academic interest. Moreover, aspirations to Arab cultural authenticity look shaky in the face of box-office casting, foisting the story with unconvincing international leads, of whom only Strong emerges with much credit. Such compromises constitute a movie that’s fascinating in many respects, but doesn’t really work as the lavish entertainment intended.