Prince of Persia – a review

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ;(D. Mike Newell) has already been reviewed by many reputable reviewers, but after seeing it last night I have some thoughts on the movie that I would like to post here.

Based on the Ubisoft game series Prince of Persia, this movie was always going to have to prove itself to gamers, but in its desire to draw in the uninitiated as well it has failed to achieve either goal. Prince of Persia tries to cram too much into a single movie, resulting in a jumbled effort to entertain the masses. Rather than trying to provide a little something for everyone, the movie would have benefited from some focus. Instead it has become a collage of disjointed elements, some literally taken from the game (the near supernatural free-running, the dagger’s time rewind) and some thrown in to please the viewers that are unfamiliar with the gaming franchise. Interestingly, keeping in mind the audience the movie aims for, in making this choice to throw in as much plot as possible the writers do rely heavily on the presumption that every viewer coming to see the movie, gamer or no, is aware of Prince Dastan’s talents, powers and character; this apparently absolved them from having to add any further substance to the character. The overall result is a movie in which not a single character is really fleshed out, which makes the whole experience rather unsatisfying.

An unfortunate side-effect of this is that one of the characters holding great potential to hook the audience, Sir Ben Kingsley‘s bitterly ambitious Prince Nizam, has become little more than an afterthought. Nizam is after the Dagger of Time, a dagger whose hilt is filled with mystical sand; a push of the jewel placed atop the hilt turns back time for some seconds, with only the person holding the dagger being aware of what happened. With only a handful of scenes, Sir Ben Kingsley’s otherwise impressive screen presence – which could have added some much needed richness to an otherwise barren, if overstuffed plot – is reduced to a few scowls and some facial contortions designed to convince the audience how evil, untrustworthy and back-handed he really is.

Similarly, Gemma Arterton‘s Tamina spends most of the movie being a plot device, mostly annoying and choosing the most inopportune moments for discourse and displays of emotional involvement that seem to come out of nowhere. Whether it is Arterton’s approach to the role or Mike Newell’s direction of her, her talent is wasted here with her playing a character not nearly fleshed out enough to invoke Prince Dastan’s intense interest in and affection for her. There is simply not enough there to position Tamina as a person, let alone a credible love interest. ;

Dastan’s affection, expressed as well as possible by Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, seems to lack any basis in, well, anything really. The suggestion is, apparently, that if two people spend a fair amount of time together and go through some intense crap (the intensity of which is, by the way, as unconvincing as the attraction between the prince and the princess) they will automatically fall irrevocably in love with each other. However, there is no sign of any chemistry between Dastan and Tamina throughout the entire film, much as Gyllenhaal regularly throws puppy-like glances in the general direction of Arterton. A hint of mutual interest is, ironically, only very briefly visibly at the end of the movie when Dastan and Tamina share a moment in the courtyard of the now de-occupied sacred city of Alamut, about to embark on married life together (these things are arranged rather quickly in such settings), with only Dastan knowing their never-happened history together.

Another unfortunate writing decision was the choice of ‘bad guys’: the rather more entertaining monsters from the game have been replaced with a tribe of supernaturally skilled assassins called the Hassansin (which sadly sounds rather like the writers were unable to spell the name Hashshashin; ironically, Alamut was the capital of this Persian tribe of warriors, whose name supposedly inspired the later term ‘assassin’), who for all their powers and talents still fall miserably short in presenting themselves as a credible menace. Granted, they can train snakes to perform long-distance attacks, but snake-charming and glazed-over eyeballs? Not really enough to convince you of the urgency to destroy them for posing any sort of serious threat.

The superficial treatment of pretty much all the characters the audience is asked to engage with has its effects on every element of the movie. The death of several key characters makes little to no impression, and the betrayal by one or possibly more priests of Tamina’s order, having been bribed to aid prince Nazim in his selfish quest, barely even registers.

The plot is heavy-handed, with the writers spoon-feeding the audience the emotional essence of the film (Persia only works when the brothers are undivided in their brotherhood, etc.) and rehashing it every so often. Possibly the worst moment of the film comes near the end, when the dagger’s powers and the need for its use are literally spelled out to the audience as Dastan convinces his brother, Prince Tus (Richard Coyle), of Nazim’s treachery. I think I have honestly never seen any movie patronize its audience more than Prince of Persia does at that moment.

For all this, the movie also has some very good elements.

The opening sequence was promising, giving a brief history of how Dastan has come to be a Prince of Persia. The action sequence is fun and William Foster as the young Dastan is defiant and clearly enjoying himself. ;

Jake Gyllenhaal is well-cast as Prince Dastan. He is charming, athletic and overall credible as the Prince Dastan we know from the game series. He brings an intensity to the character without ever overplaying him, and that is impressive in light of the rest of the movie. His English accent sounds natural and flawless; there is no hint of his being American in his pronunciation. He keeps up the accent consistently throughout, but the real proof is in the scenes with Dastan’s brothers, played by British actors Richard Coyle (Prince Tus) and Toby Kebbell (Prince Garsiv), where he sounds as natural in British English as they do.

Both Richard Coyle and Toby Kebell do an impressive job and manage to somehow spark an interest in the two brothers, despite the characters of Tus and Garsiv getting as superficial a treatment as the other characters. ;

Alfred Molina does a delightful turn as Sheik Amar, an ostrich-racing overblown bookie in charge of a Las Vegas-like oasis where gamblers from far and wide come to make him rich and ogle scantily clad serving girls. His performance injects some much-needed spirit into the proceedings and he manages to make even the lamest of jokes (the size of one’s sword… enough said) funny through pitch perfect delivery. ;

The free-running/climbing scenes were a joy to look at and well executed.

On the whole, I felt Prince of Persia was disappointing. I had expected at least an entertaining romp, but instead ended up seeing a movie that for all its ambitions simply failed to connect with its audience.

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