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Film Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Directed by: Mike Newell
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley

Ridiculous, colourful, cringeworthy and loud enough to make a roadie wince, Prince of Persia has nearly all the ingredients to be the new Pirates, and it just about cooks up a hit.

What might fail to initially register with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the extraordinarily detailed costume design by Penny Rose. This is mainly because for the most part the film is good at its job. Thanks to Mike Newell’s fidgety direction, it moves at such a pace that clothes become part of the fabric as it were. For example, who would know that shady peddler Sheik Amar’s (Alred Molina) coat was hand-distressed by a cheese grater? That is the skill of Penny Rose, she creates costume that feels so much like it belongs we barely even notice it is there.

Outfits are particularly important in reference to character branding. Every hero, villain and scoundrel is given a very specific look. Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), former orphan and now muscular prince in all but official title wears a costume that modifies in line with his physical and emotional journey.

As an adult, Dastan starts out bare-chested scrapping in the street. Then a white linen shirt as he demonstrates moral fibre in front of his war hungry brothers. For the first battle sequence he dons the familiar video game vest and armour creating synergy with the film’s roots. Soon after, he flees the family home hunted for a crime he did not commit. Wearing a long, all over pattern ‘spiral coat’ Dastan is tormented but resolute and strong. This is the man the story creates; this is his signature iconography.

Especially innovative is how costume directly affects narrative. The story’s inciting incident is turned on the revelation that an item of clothing is actually a weapon. This is flipside of the argument that dress should only serve character. Here the Alamut prayer robe is a liberally pleated, gold braided symbol that the viewer is supposed to notice, yet it does not take us out of the picture, i.e. we do not think we are looking at an actor’s costume. The robe needs to be remembered, however, because soon after its introduction it will kill someone. In quite what manner you will have to watch and see for yourself.

Comparing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time against Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) is entirely justified. Both projects are produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and distributed by Disney, they have a similar heritage (swap studio ride for video game), similar tone and intended audience (young males primarily), they even have the same costume designer (Penny Rose won a BAFTA twice for her work on Pirates). Most important of all they are both part one of a franchise. The only difference being that for The Curse of the Black Pearl this was not its original intention, where as for The Sands of Time it is probably the whole reason the film got made.

Unfortunately in a side by side compassion, Prince of Persia fails to match up. While Pirates was nonsense, thanks to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s wry screenplay it always knew it was nonsense possessing an obvious sense of pantomime. The Sands of Time takes itself very seriously at times leading to unintentional titters. It is aimed at children, but if Pirates managed to get everybody aboard then why not Prince of Persia?

Most important of all there is no Johnny Depp. That is to say there is no Johnny Depp’s character (sometime hard to distinguish); there is no Captain Jack Sparrow. The Pirates movies are impossible to imagine without this anti-hero and his devil may care swagger. By the time At World’s End arrived, Jack Sparrow was only reason most punters bought tickets.

The Sands of Time has Alfred Molina playing roguish Amar, but he cannot compete with in a role that needs more throwaway dialogue in contrast to Jake Gyllenhaal’s moral daring do. Nothing wrong with buffed up Gyllenhaal either, same with all the cast. They are as excitedly animated as you expect, which helpfully doubles as an ironic metaphor considering the source material. Yet as a cynical audience we need a way in. If, as with Pirates, the main protagonist is not going to provide this connection, it must come from somewhere else.

Here is a commendable effort that falls short of The Curse of the Black Pearl in perhaps every way but costume. Not bad, and with plenty of free-running fighting action, OTT effects and shimmering Moroccan vistas, not boring at all. If everyone else puts in as much effort as Penny Rose for the sequel it might achieve what Pirates resolutely failed to do – Prince of Persia could actually get better.

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.