Rus­sell Crowe’s bi­b­li­cal turn in Noah goes un­der the mi­cro­scope

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton

Noah (M) Na­tional re­lease

EVEN be­fore it opened this week, Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s film Noah, about the bi­b­li­cal char­ac­ter, had come in for a great deal of crit­i­cism from Chris­tians who, ap­par­ently with­out see­ing it, com­plained that it dis­torted the story that oc­cu­pies about 40 verses in Gen­e­sis. It wouldn’t be the first time a ma­jor lit­er­ary work had been given a “free” in­ter­pre­ta­tion by Hol­ly­wood and it won’t be the last, but self-pro­claimed athe­ist Aronof­sky’s film is prob­lem­atic not only for any changes it might have made to the bi­b­li­cal char­ac­ter of the man who built the Ark and saved hu­man­ity — and the an­i­mal king­dom — from a dis­as­trous flood.

Al­though the Bi­ble has pro­vided fod­der for movies since the pi­o­neer­ing days of DW Grif­fith, Noah has — to my knowl­edge — ap­peared in only two other ma­jor films. In the dy­ing days of the silent era, Dar­ryl F. Zanuck pro­duced and Michael Cur­tiz di­rected Noah’s Ark (1928), a film that, in the tra­di­tion of Ce­cil B. DeMille bi­b­li­cal movies of the era, com­bined a story of World War I con­flict with a ver­sion of flood as recorded in Gen­e­sis; for the time, its se­quences of dev­as­ta­tion were state-of-the-art, and the film set an early bench­mark for sheer spec­ta­cle. We had to wait al­most 40 years for an­other film about Noah — Dino De Laurentiis’s mis­guided The Bi­ble (1966), which was orig­i­nally an­nounced as a project for sev­eral cel­e­brated art-house di­rec­tors of the era (Bergman and Fellini among them) but which was even­tu­ally di­rected by John Hus­ton and, on re­lease, proved to be not the whole Old Tes­ta­ment as promised but just a few early chap­ters (Adam and Eve had to make an ap­pear­ance, of course). That most aus­tere of French film­mak­ers, Robert Bres­son ( Diary of a Coun­try Priest), was at one time to have been as­signed the Noah sec­tion of the De Laurentiis epic, a some­what mind-bog­gling prospect that sadly failed to even­tu­ate. In the end, Hus­ton cast him­self as Noah and played the char­ac­ter as a be­nign old fel­low not so far re­moved from Dr Dolit­tle in his love for birds and an­i­mals.

Aronof­sky’s Noah, very well por­trayed by Rus­sell Crowe, is noth­ing at all like that. This is a con­flicted char­ac­ter who takes him­self, and the ac­cess he be­lieves he has to the Cre­ator (the word God isn’t used in the film), very se­ri­ously in­deed. The film be­gins with a quick re­minder of what hap­pened “In the Be­gin­ning” — no naughty de­pic­tions of Adam and Eve, thank good­ness, but a nasty-look­ing ser­pent and an equally phony-look­ing ap­ple that seems to pul­sate with re­pressed evil. So Adam’s son Cain kills his brother Abel (in a very brief and stylised sil­hou­ette shot) af­ter which he and his de­scen­dants are pro­tected by fallen an­gels known as Watch­ers, ap­par­ently a ref­er­ence to the brief bi­b­li­cal ref­er­ences to Nephilim, fallen an­gels who mated with hu­man women. Cain and his de­scen­dants, in this ver­sion at least, be­came en­vi­ron­men­tal van­dals who build great cities but who have dis­played “wicked­ness” and “de­voured the world”. They are un­ques­tion­ably the bad guys. On the other hand, the de­scen­dants of Seth, Adam’s third son (born when his fa­ther was 130 years old, ac­cord­ing to Gen­e­sis), are the good guys, and Noah is a de­scen­dant of Seth. His grand­fa­ther is Methuse­lah — who else could play the aged seer but Anthony Hop­kins — and his fa­ther is Lamech (Marton Csokas). Early in the film the boy Noah sees his fa­ther killed by Tubal-cain (Finn Wit­trock), a de­scen­dant of Cain.

Years pass and Noah is now mar­ried to Naameth (Jennifer Con­nelly) and they have three sons, Shem (Dou­glas Booth), Ham (Lo­gan Ler­man) and young Japeth (Leo McHugh Car­roll) — why am I re­minded of The Three Stooges? The en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious Noah, who teaches his sons not to de­stroy flora and fauna for the sake of it, is trou­bled by night­mares of be­ing trapped un­der­wa­ter with a great many dead bod­ies. Be­liev­ing these night­mares rep­re­sent some kind of in­struc­tion by the Cre­ator, he moves his fam­ily to a new lo­ca­tion, which in­volves a jour­ney across the wasted, pol­luted land­scape that rep­re­sents “civil­i­sa­tion”. Along the way Noah and his fam­ily come across Ila, a lit­tle girl with a bad stomach wound, and they bring her along with them. She quickly grows up to be a beau­ti­ful teenager, played by Emma Wat­son, a per­fect match for Shem, though Ham’s a bit jeal­ous be­cause he lacks a girl of his own. Some­how (it’s not very clear how) Ila be­comes con­vinced she’s bar­ren and there­fore not a good mate for Shem in a world where breed­ing has as­sumed par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance.

Hav­ing es­tab­lished the nu­clear fam­ily at the heart of the story, Aronof­sky and co-screen­writer Ari Han­del add into the mix the adult Tubal-cain (Ray Win­stone), a bad guy if ever there were one, and a group of Watch­ers who have shifted their al­le­giance from the sons of Cain to Noah and his lit­tle fam­ily. These Watch­ers are Aronof­sky’s great­est mis­cal­cu­la­tion: gi­ant fig­ures com­posed of huge pieces of rock and with fiery eyes and voices be­long­ing to such ac­tors as Nick Nolte and Frank Lan­gella, they seem to have strayed from the set of a Transformers movie; they’re ut­terly ridicu­lous mon­sters, and ev­ery time they’re on screen the film sheds an­other layer of cred­i­bil­ity.

The Ark it­self, when Noah and his sons fi­nally get around to build­ing it (from wood pro­vided by a for­est that con­ve­niently ap­pears around them) is one of the film’s more orig­i­nal cre­ations. It looks not at all like any kind of boat, but rather like a large wooden ware­house that just hap­pens to float. As for the an­i­mals, they’re given pretty short shrift in this ver­sion of the story. Birds ar­rive first, fly­ing en masse into the Ark and quickly suc­cumb­ing to some kind of sleep­ing gas that Noah has in­vented; the an­i­mals them­selves duly ar­rive, led by the snakes, in one or two quite im­pres­sive vis­ual ef­fects shorts and also lose con­scious­ness. I didn’t no­tice any mar­su­pi­als, but that’s an­other story. Af­ter that, the crea­tures are ig­nored for the rest of the movie.

At this point Aronof­sky in­tro­duces an in­ter­est­ing el­e­ment: Ham, al­ready wor­ried that he hasn’t got a girl­friend, meets a girl when he ven­tures into the camp of Tubal-cain’s evil fol­low­ers. As they try to es­cape back to the Ark, the un­for­tu­nate young woman is caught in a trap and Noah, who has been search­ing for his son, in­sists they leave her be­hind. He’s be­come con­vinced that the Cre­ator is so fed up with hu­man­ity that he wants it to die out, so — given that Ila is bar­ren — his three sons will be the last hu­mans on Earth. It’s this ob­ses­sion that drives the lat­ter part of the film, and drives Ham into the arms of Tubal-cain.

Be­fore the flood ar­rives with a vengeance — not just heavy rain but foun­tains of wa­ter gush­ing up from be­low ground — there’s an at­tack on the Ark by Tubal-cain and his many de­praved fol­low­ers, which is ef­fec­tively han­dled in the now fa­mil­iar style of com­puter-gen­er­ated vis­ual ef­fects.

Through­out all this, Aronof­sky ap­pears to be at­tempt­ing to tread a fine line be­tween pre­sent­ing a rad­i­cal take on a bi­b­li­cal fig­ure — Noah the gree­nie — and a more con­ven­tional ap­proach. That he takes lib­er­ties with the very sketchy orig­i­nal story is clear, but surely this won’t mat­ter to any­one other than Old Tes­ta­ment fun­da­men­tal­ists, as long as the re­sult is ef­fec­tive. The di­rec­tor’s choice of sub­ject is in­ter­est­ing, too, be­cause some of his ear­lier films have sim­i­larly dealt with ob­ses­sive char­ac­ters search­ing for an an­swer to their prob­lems — films such as Pi (1998) and The Foun­tain (2006).

But in the end, Noah is a dis­ap­point­ment, de­spite gen­er­ally strong per­for­mances, some well-imag­ined se­quences and spec­tac­u­lar back­drops filmed in Ice­land. It seems that cau­tion has won out over imag­i­na­tion.

Rus­sell Crowe and Jennifer Con­nelly as Naameth, above; Anthony Hop­kins as Methuse­lah and Emma Wat­son as Ila, left

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