A new trend in moviemaking is film productions more concerned with creating awareness than succeeding commercially.
Earlier this year, The Promise used romantic drama tropes to bring attention to the Armenian genocide at hands of the Ottoman Empire (still unacknowledged by Turkey). The Black Prince is more open about its intentions, but the underlying principle is the same.
The film covers the entire life of the last king of Punjab, Maharajah Duleep Singh (singer/songwriter Satinder Sartaaj). Taken as a child by the British following the annexation of his kingdom, Duleep grows up surrounded by riches and privilege, with a direct line to Queen Victoria.
Homesick and wistful, the young Maharajah reestablishes contact with his mother, who resents the Brits and dreams of a free Punjab. She succeeds at planting the seed of rebellion in her son’s heart, who soon finds out the Crown doesn’t have the Sikhs’ best interests at heart.
A frequent problem staging real events for film is that history is unwieldy. The Black Prince never strikes a dramatic flow as the Maharajah’s attempts to do good for his homeland fall flat time and time again, preventing any build up. It doesn’t help that for half the film Duleep Singh has no agency whatsoever, or that most of the dialogue is exposition.
One bet that fails to pay off is casting Satinder Sartaaj as the Maharajah. Never mind how naturally charismatic Sartaaj is, Duleep Singh is a massive role to undertake for a first-time actor and the musician comes short.
At least two of the supporting performers are up to the task though: Shabana Azmi (Neerja) is a force of nature as the Maharajah’s mother and Jason Flemyng is believably conflicted as Duleep’s foster father.
The Black Prince does look stunning: The recreation of both XIX Century Punjab and England is gorgeous. It’s a pity the script is not at the same level: Writer/director Kavi Raz (better known from his high profile stint in St. Elsewhere) can’t escape biopic clichés and ends up sacrificing dramatic weight for historic accuracy.
The film ends with a poignant reminder that the rests of Maharajah Duleep Singh remain in England, despite his desire of having his body cremated and his ashes brought to Punjab. To this day, the matter remains divisive and unsolved.
The Black Prince opens this Friday 21st at the Landmark Cinemas in Surrey.