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