Biographical films walk a fine line. Too much intimate detail, they are accused of being boring. Too much flair, they get accused of being reductive. Finding the balance for a biopic is a tough call - especially when you can't outright change the details of someone's life. 'The Black Prince' is the story of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire - so does it manage to keep its balance, or trip and fall from the high wire?
In 1843, after the death of his father, Duleep (Satinder Sartaaj, an Indian Punjabi singer and poet) became the Maharaja at the age of five, and ruler of one of the largest areas of India. After a takeover from the British, he was exiled to the United Kingdom, and raised by Dr John Login (Jason Flemyng, 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels', 'Gemma Bovery'), never far from the watchful eye of Queen Victoria (Amanda Root, 'The Iron Lady'). Over a decade later, he was reunited with his mother (Indian New Wave star Shabana Azmi), who gave him the courage to return as the Sikh leader, and Duleep began the perilous journey from Britain back to India to attempt to overthrow the British rule.
With impeccable production values, this film looks stunning - there’s not a hair out of place on these historical figures - but that doesn’t save the film’s woeful script. Writer/director Kavi Raz has put a great emphasis on the aesthetics of the film, without having the foundation of a solid story to work from. We're thrust into this story, and given little to no context of the people involved, and less reason to empathise with them. All too often, we’re told what is happening or how people feel, rather than being shown. Trying to cram a man’s life into less than two hours proves challenging, as some moments drag on, while other plot points are glossed over or pass by in an almost incomprehensible manner.
The acting is also hit and miss - Satinder Sartaaj in the lead role doesn't have the experience or the strength to carry the film convincingly, and as such the story deviates away from him for extended periods to focus on other characters, such as Duleep's mother. Amanda Root makes a suitable Queen Victoria, playing her straight but not inhuman. Jason Flemyng tries his utmost with a relatively limited role, but scenes with Dr Login and other characters fall flat from lack equal expertise.
Trying to cram a man’s life into less than two hours proves challenging, as some moments drag on, while other plot points are glossed over.
There are a few saving graces - for those who don't know the story of Duleep Singh, it is an interesting one, and there are plenty of facts to be gleaned from the film; despite their tumultuous relationship, Queen Victoria was actually godmother to several of his children. The film also doesn't side with the British, and presents a much more balanced version of the occupation of India than is often seen in cinema.
'The Black Prince' is a film that, despite its good intentions to honour its protagonist, neglects its cohesiveness and entertainment value. In trying to preserve its accuracy for its subject, its flow is substantially disrupted, leaving a very segmented plot that plays like a bullet point list. While this is a valid attempt at portraying an interesting historical figure, it's missing the heart it so desperately needs.