The Kingdom

The Kingdom


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Not everybody with an interest in political thrillers also has an interest in politics. Not everybody looking for action in the cinema also keeps up with real life violent events around the world. The Kingdom recognises this and opens with a stunningly animated sequence which explains in a simple and elegant fashion the history of US involvement in Saudi Arabia and the political tensions ensuing therefrom. Remarkably neutral in tone, it sets the stage for a thriller which neither takes sides nor tries to preach their irrelevance. This is a human drama whose diverse characters have simple human motives. It takes complex issues and, without ever trivialising them, succeeds in breaking them down in human terms.

Riyadh is a dangerous place for westerners to live. Acknowledging this, Americans based there whilst they work in the oil industry tend to remain within secure compounds. There they can largely do as they please, dressing and behaving in ways which would be illegal elsewhere. Naturally, these compounds are viewed by many locals as symbols of US exploitation. After one of them is attacked by terrorists, the government, afraid of losing face by admitting its own inability to resolve the situation, quietly allows an FBI team to investigate. However, the Saudis have a very different approach to investigations of this type, and the team find themselves hampered at every turn. Ultimately, they must engage with a very different culture in order to find ways of making progress - and the more they learn, the more they find themselves dangerously out of their depth.

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The Kingdom manages a remarkable balancing act in being both a successful thriller and an intelligent, sensitively written culture-clash drama. Central to this is the pairing of Jamie Foxx (as the lead investigator) and Ashraf Barhom as his Saudi counterpart. The script deftly avoids the temptation to portray the Saudis as primitive, showing obvious failings (such as ignorance of forensic procedures) but also demonstrating that there is much the American characters can learn from them. There's also a continual infusion of humour, as with the American characters' reaction to perfectly ordinary Saudi driving speeds. The result of this is that when we eventually learn something about the lives of the terrorists we don't need heavy-handed speech-making to convince us that they're human too - nor how dangerous that is.

Naturally, one of the biggest clashes between US and Saudi culture relates to the role of women. This is acknowledged pragmatically and not too intrusively, though it's unfortunate that Jennifer Garner lacks the charisma to really make something of her role - it's also amusing to see US forms of sexism (such as the familiar cinematic rules about how a woman is allowed to fight) slotted in there without a second thought. Rather peculiar, though, is the complete absence of any allusion to the difficulties which Foxx's race could be expected to present in Saudi society. Perhaps it's true that all Americans are seen as identical, but this nevertheless constitutes an odd omission, especially as Saudi attitudes to race are referenced elsewhere in the script.

Although at times it verges on turning into CSI Riyadh, The Kingdom is ultimately much smarter and better informed than most of its ilk, and it consequently makes for more satisfying viewing. Action sequences are well handled - though they're often necessarily confusing, as our heroes are overwhelmed by what's happening around them, they give us a real sense of the terror which one might feel upon finding oneself in the middle of a hostile country. Local anger at America is acknowledged without being either celebrated or patronised - it simply forms the backdrop to a story which grips in its own right.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2007
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An FBI team investigates after a US compound is attacked by terrorists in Riyadh.
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Director: Peter Berg

Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman, Jeremy Piven, Richard Jenkins, Kyle Chandler, Frances Fisher, Danny Huston

Year: 2007

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 2007

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