Film Review: Noah, Or A Movie Sent To Test Us

April 13, 2014

By JOHN ELLIS

 

Noah / Directed by Darren Aranofsky / PG13

 

I saw Noah the other night.

Finally.

I had great expectations. Russell Crowe as a bearded Old Testament mega-hero? Ray Winstone as a Hebrew baddie? Heck, Emma Watson not being Hermoine? All that, and an apocalypse? Undoubtedly, cineplex event of the year!

Disbelief willingly suspended, you nevertheless approach a movie like ‘Noah’ with certain expectations: Russell Crowe + Emma Watson = Hollywood blockbuster. Darren Aronofsky + bible story = potentially pretty meaningful. Anthony Hopkins + Methuselah = the role he was born to play. Etcetera.

As for Darren Aronofsky? The Wrestler. Requiem For A Dream. Life Of Pi. Black Swan.

What, apart from The Fountain, could possibly go wrong?

Lots of things, it turns out.

My hackles were alerted to “Rise Imminent” status in the opening two seconds. Something about that banner under which the young Noah is about to receive his father’s blessing made my internal Roger Ebert Thumb start heading downward. There was something oddly ‘inauthentic’ about it, which is obviously an interesting idea in itself; we have absolutely no evidence upon which to base claims of ‘inauthenticity’ when it comes to movies depicting the ancient world, much less the world described by the author (or authors) of Genesis.

And yet we still hear that still small voice cry out within us: “That’s not how it was!”

My hackles spent the next two hours and twenty minutes slowly achieving heights previously unimagined. For starters, Anthony Hopkins’ unashamedly Welsh Methuselah was misdirected; he chatted casually and familiarly with his descendants, rather as a 21st Century person might do having just logged off Facebook.

The crowning turd in the water-pipe (as Sir General Anthony Hogmanay-Melchett once complained to Captain Blackadder) for me was the art direction. The ancient world, we can be all but sure, was nothing if not raw, savage and bleak. Why oh why, then, were the characters dressed so obviously in trousers, shirts and jackets? Did Aronofsky not learn anything from Terry Gilliam’s rough-hewn Holy Grail, or even, more appropriately, Life of Brian? Close-ups of Noah and his exceedingly unweather-beaten Hebrew wife reveal fine cloth weaves, fashionably short sleeves and New York winter coats. Hermoine sports a fashionable scarf early on, and everyone is in cooler-than-thou black. I couldn’t believe it. Literally.

Noah’s black sheep (oddly without a mate in the movie, although the Genesis account has him siring four children somehow) is his son Ham. And what an appropriate name. There’s more ham in this movie than just that character, and I’m not just talking about the two pigs on board the ark. The worst moment by far, the one that made me almost weep for forty days and forty nights, was Hermoine attempting to comfort her wailing twin baby girls (who aged miraculously well from their moment of birth until their appearance a few frames later on the roof of the ark) by… wait for it… singing to them.

I stared in utter disbelief at the awfulness of that directorial decision.

This film cost $125 million, and was presided over by some of the most powerful and experienced people in motion picture history. And they allowed that scene past the cutting-room floor?

Crying new-borns simply do not respond to half-arsed singing. Not immediately. Especially on the edge of a floating Weetbix in the middle of a tempestuous ocean, presided over by a fundamentalist lunatic with a knife and a mission from God.

Could it have gotten any more unbearable?

Yes!

Noah’s knife hovers millimeters above one of the baby’s eyes. Then… at the last minute… a kiss! From Granddad! All is well! Cue CG dove with olive branch and concentric rainbows!

Why do these things bring out such a strong reaction in me? After all, it’s only a movie. A movie designed, ultimately, to go down well with popcorn. I shouldn’t take it so seriously, should I?

So why do I feel so let down?

Because somehow, this movie promised something it eventually reneged on. It ended up becoming one of those movies whose trailer was better than the actual film. I expected brutal realism, desperate rawness, biblical bleakness, apocalyptic darkness, zero sentimentality. I feel like I got sanitised; Americanised;
shopping-malled; Good News Versioned.

Am I surprised?

Yes, actually.

And what of God?

The by-now-expected unholy stink raised up by (mostly American) conservative Christians has something to do with Aronofsky’s depiction, or lack thereof, of “God”. Noah refers instead to “The Creator”, but interestingly, in these pre-Jewish times, the “Creator” is already ascribed a male gender. How does this happen? Not crucial to the movie version, obviously, and therefore not worthy of a full explanation. Neither is the fact that Noah basically invents the word “ark” on the spot.

“God” does not utter a word, thank God. It’s all dreams, visions and sense impressions, which are greatly effective. “God” nevertheless comes off as vengeful, capricious, ruthless and inscrutable – the ultimate Dawkins/ Hitchens Old Testament Tyrant.

But that’s for others to squabble over. Strangely enough, I don’t think any kind of portrayal of “God” is essential to Aronofsky’s vision for this movie. Aronofsky himself has stated that this is the “least biblical treatment of a biblical story” ever attempted on film. Which is why his treatment of Yahweh is a red herring for incensed Christians the world over.

As is the issue of “authenticity”.

Does Noah stay true to the biblical narrative? If not, is it some kind of lavish 3D CG biblically-proportioned sacrilege? The Genesis account of the flood that destroyed and then reconstituted creation is only one of several other contemporary accounts recurring across other cultures. The ancient Hebrew tradition tells us of the calling and subsequent faithfulness of a man named Noah, and modern Christians, who inherited the Hebrew account along with the entire foundation of their faith from Judaism, can glean lessons of courage, integrity and steadfastness from the tale. However, as with all sacred writing, holding it to be literally true and therefore inviolable is a very dangerous game.

So can we then be incensed if we discover something in the movie that doesn’t agree with our internal Moses? Did Ray Winstone’s bovver-ry Tubal-Cain really stow away on the ark and try and murder Noah? Does it matter? It makes for an interesting diversion to an otherwise predictable waiting-game. Otherwise we might have to watch Hermoine singing again.

Speaking of singing, the final nail in the ark: the closing credits’ theme song. Patti Smith is almost as legendary as Noah himself, and the esteemed Kronos Quartet likewise. Mercy Is, the closing credits’ song, is just well and truly awful. And, while we’re there, the opening and closing credits’ font. Really? $125 million buys that?

Actually, there are a lot of approaches in this movie I really liked. For starters, prior to the destruction of creation, the pre-thunderstormy blue Middle Eastern (Middle Earth-ian?) skies are filled with heavenly bodies the ensuing conflagration subsequently obscured from the view of the naked eye; apart from the sun, all we can see from Earth during daylight hours these days is of course the moon. In this case, Aronofsky’s approach is typically and pleasingly science-fiction-like.

Noah is grim, Old Testamentally-bearded and not Australian, so well done there, Russell. The fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden pulses satisfyingly with some kind of oh-so-tempting carnality, and the treatment of the calling of all the beasts of creation to the ark is ingenious. So too, thankfully, is the depiction of a hugely central character in the movie, the flood itself.

Apocalypse porn, indeed. Aronofsky’s CG flood is devastatingly awesome, in the original sense of that grand old prostitute of a word. And that Dante-esque vision of doomed humanity clinging hopelessly to the last peak of solid ground is equally wonderful. I would just love to have seen more of that and less of Jennifer Connolly’s perfect complexion.

Oh well.

Nice trailer.

Shame about the movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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