Thursday, December 4, 2014

'Exodus: Gods and Kings' (2014) directed by Ridley Scott

Exodus: Gods and Kings is very nearly a secular Bible adventure.  Yahweh's influence is steadily pared back to a series of logically consistent natural disasters and vivid hallucinations after by Moses gets bonked on the head by a big rock.  This is the core argument at the centre of Exodus: Moses fanatical religious revolution clashing with the pragmatic realpolitik of Rhamses.  Ridley Scott appears to be asking "Is Moses crazy? And if he is does it matter?"

Set in 1300BCE we meet Moses (Christian Bale) as the adopted son and general in Pharoah Seti's (John Turturro) army.  He's favoured by the court and gently rankles heir apparent Rhamses (Joel Edgerton).  Still, the two are brothers-in-arms and it becomes quickly apparent that they'd die for one another.  But once the Seti dies and Rhamses takes the throne political constraints begin to wind their way around the new Pharoah's heart.

With the revelation of Moses' birth to a slave mother he's summarily exiled from Memphis, wandering across the blasted landscape until he eventually comes across the model-sexy  nomadic goat-tender Zipporah (Maria Valverde).  Nine years later Moses is settled with a wife and kids, happily tending to his flock and whiling away the hours happily throwing rocks into a bucket.  

But then he's whanged on the head by a big rock and has a hallucinatory freakout, concluding that God has told him to liberate the Jewish slaves of Egypt.  He returns to Memphis as a crazed religious revolutionary, drawing followers to him with his magnetic presence while disturbing them with his fanaticism. After making his demands soon comes a river of blood, frogs, flies, locusts and so on.

John Turturro makes a neat Pharoah.  But there's not much of him.
The obvious antecedent to Exodus is Darren Aronofsky's excellent Noah.  These two biblical films share a rough aesthetic, dragging divine stories through the dust and giving their (literally) iconic heroes a big dollop of psychological turmoil.  The difference is that while a large portion of Noah's success is derived from willingness to portray what's in scripture  - no matter how weird - Exodus often feels a bit embarrassed about the whole God thing. 

It's not quite spiritually insincere; Christian Bale's performance as Moses has a hyper-focussed intensity that reminds you why he's such a great actor.  Key to his Moses is that Bale takes everything utterly seriously; doubling down on the madness of Moses and playing him as a genuinely weird, mad-eyed, scraggly bearded zealot.  He's odd to the point where other characters treat him with kid gloves, hiding behind rocks and worriedly watching him argue with his imaginary friends.

Next to Bale's Moses everyone else feels a bit dulled.  Edgerton's Rhamses eventually builds up to a maniacal emotional peak, but for most of the film he's stuck in a mild miff.  Everyone else feels a bit wasted, with great actors playing underdeveloped characters that don't have proper dramatic arcs.  A prime offender is Aaron Paul's Joshua, who's relegated to staring on in disbelief, any depth to him apparently left on the cutting room floor.  Sigourney Weaver as Rhamses' mother Tuya fares even worse, getting just one or two clipped lines before unceremoniously vanishing.  

This reeks of a future director's cut that fleshes out these trimmed subplots.  It wouldn't be the first time Ridley Scott's directorial hand has been forced; critical consensus on Kingdom of Heaven was notably revised once the diluted theatrical version was supplanted by a longer cut on DVD.  I suspect the same will happen to Exodus, even at two and a half hours it feels a bit cramped.

Where it does succeed is creating a sense of massiveness  Scott is shooting for an old school, DW Griffiths/DeMille style and largely succeeds.  The plague sequences are imaginatively and pretty grossly shot, with nauseating shots of swarming flies and writhing, wet frogs.  The film reaches a visual peak in the parting of the sea sequence, which (as you'd expect) works as a neat depiction of mankind's powerlessness in the face of humongous elemental forces.

Despite Scott's easy talent for spectacle and the impressive production values (the eyeliner budget alone must be enormous) Exodus never quite emotionally connects with the audience, settling at showing us the story of Moses without asking us to become spiritually or emotionally involved with it.  To be fair, some of this is a symptom of narrative problems with The Bible.  Having a protagonist that begins as a proactive revolutionary end up as a reactive observer drains his autonomy.  Ideally Moses would have been the instigator of the plagues, personally bearing the burden of deciding what's to happen to the Egyptians himself.   But I suppose doing this is probably not worth having a load of Bible nerds getting all shirty that you'd taken liberties with the source material.   

Exodus isn't a disaster but neither is it that great.  This a competent, sometimes visually interesting film that plays the story of Moses about as safe as you reasonably can in 2014. Neither willing to go full Noah crazy with the miracles, nor bold enough to present a secular vision of Moses' story, it feels like it's trying to please believers and non-believers alike. And so, in the end it truly pleases no-one.


Exodus: Gods and Kings is released 26th December in the UK, 12th December in the US.

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