This film review of “Exodus – Gods and Kings” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 December 2014, with the title “Bible story on a grand scale”.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley
Biblical movies fall into two broad categories: those that stay close to the story and claim, “this is the way it was”, and those that adapt and take creative license. The new blockbuster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes the adaptation approach but tries not to stray far from the basic narrative.
Directed by Ridley Scott, whose credits range from “Alien”, “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to “The Good Wife” TV series, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a big picture, straining for epic greatness and to out-do its antecedents, particularly Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments”. The sets are lavish, the cast is large, the costumes are expensive and the action – when it comes (and there’s plenty) – is big, noisy and compelling: it’s a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Although not a great film – there are a number of flat parts and the depth of characterisation pales considerably in comparison to Scott’s “Gladiator” – most fans of the biblical narrative should be satisfied. As to whether or not the world now needs another big film re-telling of the story of the freeing of the Jews and the flight from Egypt, that’s a separate question. Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”, which reinterpreted that the flood as a parable for global warming, this new “Exodus” has little new to say about our modern world of belief.
As Moses, Christian Bale’s extraordinary performance anchors the film. While he’s an Anglo guy with light brown hair well-suited for middle American Christian audiences who like to see biblical heroes who look like them (think Charlton Heston), he’s also an actor who completely inhabits his roles. It’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who played “Irving Rosenfeld” with a “comb-over” in “American Hustle”, three Bruce Wayne/Batmans and the young boy in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”. From anguished emotion to warrior to impassioned leader, Bale carries the role with aplomb – and thus carries the film: a true 21st century Moses.
Australia’s own Joel Edgerton plays Ramses, who is rarely seen on-screen wearing anything other than yellow and gold clothing. It’s a strong performance, but in the match-up against Yul Brenner (DeMille’s 1956 Ramses), I go with Yul. Here there is also an odd throwback to “Gladiator”: Ramses frequently speaks of how he felt unloved by his father – possibly a clue to his brutality – and celebrates how his son can sleep well because he is loved. Remember Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator”? He’s as psychologically messed up as they come, and he reflects that his nephew can sleep well because he is loved. At this point, you wonder what issues director Scott is working on, or if he is simply saying that all powerful tyrants were unloved as children.
There are some jarring casting choices, proof that once actors develop an on-screen “persona”, it’s hard to escape. As the older Pharaoh (Seti I), John Turturro certainly looks the part (his Italian features easily “go Mediterranean”), but I had a hard time forgetting that it was Turturro, star of many urban American films. Similarly it’s hard to forget that it’s actually Sigourney Weaver (“Alien”, “Dave”) playing Tuya, although it seems that her scenes were cut and she is more heavily made up. A smirking Ben Mendelsohn (the nasty viceroy Hegep) comes off better, inhabiting the character with slimy ease.
The ten plagues are suitably impressive, as awe-inspiring as any on screen to date. I found myself saying the Hebrew name of each plague as it appeared: dam, tzefardaya, kinim, arove, dever, schin, barad … you get the idea. It’s a genuinely thrilling part of the film. Strangely, however, the film does not include any scene where Moses pleads with Pharaoh to let his people go, instead presenting the plagues as solely divinely inspired in which Moses had no say and therefore unable to use in negotiation.
I also missed the unleavened bread: when the Jews left Egypt quickly, wasn’t matza a big thing? You can tell that director Ridley Scott did not grow up with annual Passover seders, eating matza for eight days every year. If he did, surely he wouldn’t have been able to resist a short matza-baking scene.
“Exodus” handles the language well, always a great challenge with biblical films. The dialogue is rarely stilted, using a modern vernacular English that avoids slipping into 21st century idioms. There’s little didacticism, and almost no unnecessary speechifying, however those looking for direct biblical quotes – unlike the recent “Noah” – may be disappointed.
Director Scott solves the issue of accents (and it sure can be one) by having everyone speak with a mild British accent. It seems to work, giving a sense of formalism and “remove” to the language that American English never does. Strangely, the only actor who does not speak with a British accent is the one who most looks the part: Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass plays Bithiah with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent; it’s a good sound, but as she’s the only one, it comes across as odd.
There are some fascinating interpretations: the Red Sea does not so much as “part” in two as it does “recede” to one side, as if prior to a tsunami. Most troubling, however, is the appearance of a small boy with a strong English accent (most accents are quite mild) as the “messenger” of God: how the Almighty speaks to Moses. This is a high degree of adaptation and interpretation, one that Christian audiences will probably be comfortable with, but very few Jews.
The film ends (only a minor spoiler here: we all know the plot, right?) with a loud whimper. Following a short scene where Moses chisels the Ten Commandments, we see him with long gray hair travelling in a cart. The implication is … what exactly? What about ending with the successful crossing of the Red Sea and drowning of the Egyptian armies? It’s more triumphant.