By Liam Lacey
A tranquilized imitation of a stately Merchant Ivory film, The Black Prince is a poignant biography made into an inert film.
The story follows 19th-century Sikh prince Duleep Singh, known as the last maharajah of Punjab. After the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s that ended the half-century-long Sikh empire, the teenaged heir was taken to England. Raised as a Christian in captive luxury, he became a pet of Queen Victoria’s though her government thwarted Singh’s subsequent efforts to return to India to reclaim his religion and his throne.
While the story of Duleep’s mistreatment seems intended to stir Sikh ethnic pride, the movie seems more likely to rouse yawns. Though the production is lavishly costumed and lushly scored, director-writer Kavi Raz never finds a coherent rhythm, as he races through decades in flashes or milks scenes for too long.
Worse, he has cast as a hero an inexperienced actor who is blank, the good-looking poet and musician, Satinder Sartaaj, who proves devoid of onscreen dynamism. Otherwise, as Duleep’s pious foster father, Jason Flemyng is merely decent while the British costume-picture veteran Amanda Root (Jane Eyre, Persuasion) is cast as Duleep’s unlikely confidant, Queen Victoria, providing such cryptic advice as this: “Tell me a kingdom built on truth.”
The only vibrant character here is that of Duleep’s mother, an aggrieved and mischievous string-puller archly played by Shabana Azmi (City of Joy, Midnight’s Children). She has a one sharp dinner scene where she tells an English guest how she decided not to poison him but her performance is the only bright jewel in a dull tiara.
The Black Prince. Written and directed by Kavi Raz. Starring Satinder Sartaaj, Amanda Root, Jason Flemyng and Shabana Azmi. Opens wide July 21.
Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather.