May 31, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

One of the best things about doing this blog over the years is all the fabulous people who have showed up in the comments section. One of those fabulous people, Patrick, has been kind enough to offer us a number of guest posts for the next few months - starting with his review of Prince of Persia. Patrick is so cool that he writes reviews in 2 languages, so if you took more German than we did in high school, you can also head over to his blog when you're done with this. Alternately, you can look for him as "The Other Patrick" in the comments at The Hathor Legacy. Enjoy!

Persia, long ago: King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) and his brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) are out at the market one day, when Sharaman notices the young but courageous boy Dastan and decides to adopt him as his third son. Dastan grows up to be Jake Gyllenhaal, and together with his brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) Dastan one day finds himself conquering the city of Alamud. However, the weapons that are supposed to be in Alamud turn out not to be there, merely an excuse to get at Alamud's true treasure: a dagger containing the Sands of Time, with which anyone can travel into the past and change it. Things happen, and Dastan finds himself on the run with the Dagger on his belt and the Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) at his side and a conspiracy declaring him a traitor and murderer...

Okay, so far for the plot summary. If you read on, beware of spoilers.

I can't talk about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (hereafter Prince of Persia) without mentioning the racefail at its core.

Succinctly put by Kameron Hurley, there seems to be a single actor in an important role that could actually be Persian: Ben Kingsley. Guess who the traitor turns out to be? I couldn't confirm Toby Kebbel's ethnicity, and of course Alfred Molina is at least south European. But still.

I am glad at least that the actors don't talk in middle eastern accents - that would have been even more "Arab face", but the decision to give even Gyllenhaal a British accent (which he doesn't pull off all the time) is confusing. The Persians are British? Of course, there is a character that speaks broken English, namely the African tribesman Seso, played by British actor Steve Toussaint who, by the way, speaks flawless English himself. Seso is the noble savage, coming from a tribe of knife throwers, following his honor and giving his life for the one who saved his life before. He is also mostly silent, though there is a moment where he tells Molina's character that he talks too much, and it comes off as if Seso's silence is a matter of personal choice.

Alfred Molina, by the way, plays a tax-hating merchant-slash-criminal who is overly fond of ostrich races, i.e. he is the comic relief character. He still gets many good lines and performs them perfectly, though. And as I said, Ben Kingsley is the traitorous uncle who turns out to have not a single shred of decency - Nizam even faked his fondness for Dastan, and in the end of course he cannot admit he has lost until he is beaten in a sword fight (surprisingly, 67-year-old Kingsley stands no chance against muscle-packed Gyllenhaal) and killed. He probably also steals candy from children.

Nizam even employs the Hassansins, sorcerous contract killers led by Icelandic actor Gísli Örn Garðarsson - on the other hand, giving this role to what would have been the only other Arab actor might have been even worse.

When it comes to the women, Prince of Persia is both worse and better. Worse because aside from Princess Tamina, there is not a single female character in the film that I could recall having any lines. Sure, there are belly dancers, and harem girls, but even that only in a few short scenes. Tamina is taken as a prize right from the beginning. At first, Tus wants to marry her, but King Sharaman gives her to Dastan, instead (since Tus already has eight wives). Over the course of the whole film, Dastan and Tamina only ever ride on a single horse (despite opportunities to get more), and you can guess who gets to ride in the saddle and who has to hang on. Even when Tamina flees on her own, she flees on foot and Dastan, when inexplicably finding her in the middle of the desert, brings "their" horse along. Even the final shot of the film shows them astride a single horse.

But it's not all bad. See, Tamina actually has a purpose here, her own purpose. She is the sacred guardian of the dagger and the Sands of Time and she does what she must to fulfill her duty. At first, she'd rather die than be wedded off, but when she discovers the dagger is in Persian hands, she acquiesces... somewhat. Tamina is portrayed as a head-strong woman who is quite capable of fooling people (most of all, men), and at least twice she manages to trick Dastan out of the dagger and leave him in her dust. She also grabs weapons and fights, but she is clearly not very good at it. On the one hand, the sacred guardian should be able to fight in my opinion, but on the other hand, at least we don't get one of those characters who clearly can't fight at all and yet kicks butt all the way. So it seemed more realistic, and Tamina is clearly portrayed as someone with her wits about her - but it also makes her rely on her charms, which might come off as stereotypical feminine wiles.

Tamina follows her duty, and it is Dastan who ends up joining her cause. There's a terrific moment where she is about to lay her life down in order to put the dagger safely away, and Dastan stands in her way, saying he's not ready to let her go. Tamina leans down as if to kiss him, meanwhile sneaking her hand past him to put the dagger away. She also comes to Dastan's rescue close to the end. And (this one will be a real SPOILER, so be warned again) she and Dastan hang from a cliff, she lets herself fall to her death so that Dastan can stop Nizam and fulfill her duty by proxy.

In the end, all the deaths throughout the films become meaningless, sadly, as Dastan turns back time again (to directly after the sacking of Alamud, and not before - I'm not sure why, and I'm also not sure why that didn't end the world as it was supposed to). But that means we also get a second "first meeting" of Dastan and Tamina, and Dastan actually treats her like an equal and with respect and thereby gives the viewers the glimpse of a future romance (they don't kiss, she just takes his hand).

Prince of Persia is not a great film: its action scenes are cut in a way as to make them hard to follow as opposed to exciting. The banter between Tamina and Dastan can be funny, but sometimes is just laborious, and Aflred Molina is not on screen nearly often enough. It is a typical blockbuster action film.

Tamina is the only female character of note, and she is not perfect, but she is still better than I ever would have expected. Based on her alone, I might even give this film three stars, certainly two. But the race fail is so enormous that I can't do that - that one deserves zero stars, one at best. But I want to honor that Tamina is not the typical princess, that she has her own quest, and her own goal right through the end of the film, that she doesn't sacrifice her goal for her love of Dastan. So please, Hollywood, take the two stars as encouragement. Please.

2 stars - So close.


I think I've heard the term used for Seso's tribe before, but referring to a kind of throwing knife, not to users of such - so the name in the film is kind of like referring to Japanese people as shurikens (assuming my memory is correct).

Re the Big Ending Spoiler:

In the end, all the deaths throughout the films become meaningless, sadly, as Dastan turns back time again (to directly after the sacking of Alamud, and not before - I'm not sure why, and I'm also not sure why that didn't end the world as it was supposed to).

When describing the sandglass to Dastan, Tamina said that it started out as a world-ending sandstorm, but there was a girl who offered her life in exhange for the world, and the gods were moved enough that they relented. I had the idea that Tamina, as this girl's successor, repeated that feat when she made herself fall, and that was what allowed the sands to be used rather than trashing the world. That might just be wishful thinking - but she chooses to give up her life, for the same end, in the threat of the same circumstances - so I think it's a viable interpretation.



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