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Non-Review Review: The Black Prince

The Black Prince is a well-intentioned misfire.

Written and directed by Kavi Raz, The Black Prince is a historical epic attempting to explore the life and times of the Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was abducted from India and taken to the United Kingdom where he became Queen Victoria’s “black prince.” The movie is undoubtedly ambitious and a labour of love for Kavi Raz, who is clearly working within any number of severe budget and production restraints. The best thing about The Black Prince might just be its canny use of existing locations that create a fascinating period atmosphere that recalls a vintage BBC drama.

However, the problems with The Black Prince are more fundamental than any issue with budget or ambition. Raz clearly has an abiding sympathy for and interest in the Maharaja Duleep Singh, but the film suffers from a reluctance to take a step back from its subject. Instead of tightening its focus on one aspect of the character’s life, or one key decision, the film attempts to condense the character’s entire history down to a two-hour movie. The result is a movie where a lot of things happen, but none of those things feel grounded in anything particularly important.

The Black Prince is a movie that suffers from its desire to be all things to all audiences, trying to pivot between genres in the spaces between scenes, reducing its central characters to vehicles for plot-driven or historical exposition, and changing its core premise so frequently that it feels like the cliffnotes of a much stronger film.

 

The choice of locations on The Black Prince is genuinely impressive. The film’s surroundings are striking. The film often struggles to escape the technical limitations imposed on Raz, whether through the recycled use of flashback footage, questionable green screen, or stock establishing shots. However, the bulk of the action unfolds in and around grand old houses that look impressive, with Raz appreciating the sense of texture that a nice marble fireplace can add to a scene or understanding that scenes of characters have profound conversations on benches work better if those benches are in lovely places.

These are fine buildings, and they are captured well on film by cinematographer Aaron C. Smith. Raz and Smith work well together to create a sense of space and scale. Ironically, The Black Prince never feels bigger or more epic than when it is inside these large mansion houses, and the film often feels lost when it strays beyond them. These are obviously long-standing and beautifully-maintained buildings, but Raz does an excellent job at using them to convey a genuine sense of production value.

If only the rest of the film were constructed as sturdily as those houses. There are several key problems with The Black Prince, but the biggest issue is a crisis of identity that effectively mirrors that of its lead character. Duleep struggles with the legacy of his abduction from his home country and his indoctrination into a foreign faith, trying desperately to figure out who he is. The Black Prince might have benefited from similar introspection, trying to figure out what exactly it was about and what exactly it wanted to say.

There is a lot to say about Maharaja Duleep Singh, and about his complicated relationship with both Britain and India. His story is impressive and epic. It could easily lend itself to a historical epic. However, The Black Prince could never be a historical epic, canny use of filming locations and preserved surroundings aside. The Black Prince attempts to cover everything from the usurpation of Duleep’s throne through to the circumstances of his death, a broad sweep of British and Indian history. That is a lot of ground to cover, particularly if most scenes are limited to conversations.

The Black Prince tries desperately to fit everything in, which leads to any number of jarring scene transitions. Many of these scenes feel like they were taken directly from an outline, serving a clear sense of purpose in terms of the narrative but without any real finesse or nuance. Frequently, scenes open with exposition from characters explaining what has happened in the space of the cut from the previous scene, as if trying to ensure that the audience understands everything that is going own but without the room to show any of it going on.

This is particularly obvious in the way that the film treats Duleep’s family. In narrative terms, Duleep’s family serves a very clear purpose. They exist both as a justification for his attempts to assert his legitimacy and as potential collateral damage in his struggle. However, The Black Prince does not have time to show any of this to the audience. Instead, it settles for bluntly telling the audience. The result is that all of the developments involving Duleep’s family feel like bullet points rather than scenes, the blueprint for an arc rather than the arc itself.

Duleep explains the importance of his family to other characters, but very rarely gets any extended interactions with them. The film makes a point to show his first meeting with his future wife, but shows little meaningful countership between the two characters and offers her little in the way of character development. When his eldest son pleads with Duleep not to let his family wallow in poverty as a result of his political choices, there is no sense of how his family has suffered outside of the very clumsy dialogue that bluntly states that the family is in massive debt.

The Black Prince races to check off big events from the lives of its central character, which leads to some jarring tonal transitions. There is a striking a moment early on where Duleep seems to lose two important parental figures in the space of two minutes, because the film simply needs to cover that narrative ground as quickly as possible. It often feels like the movie is trying to race through set-up and exposition to get to the meat of the story, but it never slows down to let the story unfold. Watching the movie feels lit a series of plot beats that never finds a rhythm.

The Black Prince aspires to be everything. Much like it races through the details of Duleep’s life, at also awkwardly transitions through genre. The movie seems like a period drama about identity, but then awkwardly pivots into an espionage thriller and then features a climactic action sequence. There is a weird tonal dissonance at play, perhaps best expressed during a montage set during the character’s time in Russia. Duleep’s frustration with the stalling and glad-handing of the Russian authorities is interrupted for a sequences of Duleep practicing his swordsmanship by a frozen lake.

The Black Prince is a movie with a lot of ambition and an impressive production design. However, it suffers from a crisis of identity that feels much more profound than that of its lead character.

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