The historical biopic The Black Prince is trying to do something admirable and heartfelt, but writer-director Kavi Raz stumbles when trying to make a good film out of its rich source material. Sloppily directed, incoherently paced, but bearing the seeds and beats of something that could have been a sweeping and moving epic, The Black Prince is a dud that earns a lot of points for having its heart firmly in the right place, but has little else to recommend it.
The film begin in the mid-1800s in the Victorian British Empire. Maharaja Duleep Singh (singer Satinder Sartaaj, in his first starring role) was appointed king of the Sikh people at the age of five, but was quickly denied his birthright after being brought into Queen Victoria’s fold and getting baptized. Although he grows up to have a Christian marriage and children, Duleep – descendent of the beloved Lion of Punjab, Ranjit Singh – grows weary of not having a connection to his people or his heritage. He yearns to return to British ruled India and guide his people, but his increasingly desperate attempts to visit his homeland are stymied at every turn by worried British government officials. In a last ditch effort to return to India after all other political and compassionate avenues have been exhausted, Singh aligns himself secretly with some of England’s greatest detractors and enemies in a bid to sneak back into his homeland.
Not long into The Black Prince, it’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Raz gets things off to so quick of a start that after only five minutes the film seems to be covering so much ground in so little time that the story appears to be racing away from the viewer. This relentless sense of pacing makes the narrative virtually impossible to follow. The editing and structure of The Black Prince is unconscionably bad. Singh’s history is laid out so restlessly and chaotically that it feels like a bullet point presentation where half of the material has been forgotten about or glossed over. Huge chunks of necessary story and character points seem to be missing and what has been left over has been linearly, but illogically and nonsensically rearranged. There’s no transitioning between individual scenes. Whenever a moment seems to be going well and firing on all cylinders, it’s broken up by an ill timed flashback, unsubtly drowned out by the obnoxious, overbearing musical score, or the scene just ends abruptly and without satisfactory resolution. It’s a pacing problem that only gets worse the longer Raz goes on. An hour into the film, narrative of The Black Prince jumps over a decade and it feels like some formative and important information has been missed in a bid to keep the film to a less than two hour running time.
Every moment of The Black Prince swings so hard and fast for the fences that the film rings as hollow and artificial, so this sense of misplaced grandeur coupled with a lack of polished, restrained storytelling chops leaves the material dead in the water. It’s also a film so cheaply constructed that no matter what city the globe hopping narrative travels to, every opulently dressed set looks like the exact same location in a different colour palate. And yet, I want to note that within The Black Prince lies a good deal worth admiring.
While the script isn’t good and the direction is even worse, Raz’s instincts aren’t that far off. There’s a workable historical narrative waiting to burst out. The story of Singh is a compelling, righteous, and sympathetic one. The idea of a deposed monarch trying to get in touch with his original religious and political identity is the stuff great epics have been built on, and despite a script constantly trying to trip the audience up, I still wanted to follow and root for Singh. Most of the time I had no idea what was happening or what the significance of any of this was, but it’s immediately identifiable on an emotional level, and that’s something that shouldn’t be easily discounted in an otherwise irreparably flawed final product.
And while Sartaaj shows a fair amount of first time acting jitters and awkwardness, he does possess the necessary amount of charisma to make viewers like and care for Singh. Every tragic setback faced by the character registers on Sartaaj’s face beautifully. He’s a fine choice of leading man, but much like the film around him, it’s something that needs more work and honing to make a proper impact. With a bit more time, effort, money, conviction, and a better editor, The Black Prince could have been a great meditation on loss of identity and a moving biopic of a Sikh figurehead. Instead, it’s a bad movie with good intentions.
The Black Prince opens at select Cineplex locations across Canada on Friday, July 21, 2017.
Check out the trailer for The Black Prince: