Film review of Noah

April 3, 2014

(A shortened form of this film review of “Noah” appeared in the “Australian Jewish News” on April 3, 2014.)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone

The new biblical epic film “Noah” is a dark, entertaining, messy but rich cinematic experience. Its Jewish director, Darren Aronofsky, is best-known for his feverish and emotionally bleak films with mystical overtones (“Black Swan”, “The Wrestler”, “The Fountain”). In “Noah”, he has created an apocalyptic story of undeniable beauty, which even ventures to illustrate the creation of the earth and replay the story of Adam and Eve. Much of the first third of the film shows Noah – apparently the last righteous man on earth – wandering with his family in a landscape of depravity, debauchery and ecological disaster, increasingly haunted by hallucinations of tragedies to come. These images, and later ones of the large rectangular ark, are powerful and truly memorable.

“Noah” features an all-star cast, headed by Russell Crowe in the title role. This brooding, highly conflicted but yet driven character has heroic action and fighting capabilities, despatching groups of bad guys through great sword and spear fighting skills, oddly reminiscent of Crowe’s “Gladiator” role (Noah as action figure: who would have thought?). Aside from Crowe – who gives one of his best performances in years, other actors include rock-hard Jennifer Connelly (Oscar-winner for “A Beautiful Mind” co-starring with Crowe) as Noah’s wife Naameh; a mature Emma Watson as Shem’s wife Ila; Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s wizard-like grandfather Methuselah; Ray Winstone as Noah’s nemesis Tubal-Cain (see Genesis 4); and Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo Carrell as the sons Ham, Shem and Japeth.

The last major biblical story to “open wide” in movie theatres was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, back in February 2004. While “Noah” has caused some controversy (and been banned in a number of Muslim countries), it pales by comparison to the antisemitism, violence and interpretation controversies that surrounded “The Passion”. The story of Noah, of course, is from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”, in Christian terminology), and it has a Jewish director with expertise in dark “art” films and who – unlike Gibson – has never claimed divine inspiration for his work.

Aronofsky’s lack of “final cut” (full artistic control) of his film – held by the film studio Paramount – may very well have caused some of the film’s uneven-ness in tone and story. The resulting experience is part art film (it’s stunningly beautiful to look at), part biblical epic and part modern large scale action movie, complete with a climactic battle scene straight from “The Lord of the Rings”. That the three parts of this film fit together uncomfortably is not a fault of trying too little, but attempting (and risking) too much with a story that comprises only a handful of pages in the Bible.

Despite Paramount’s attempts to woo the Christian audience (especially in the United States, where evangelical Christians make up about a third of the population), “Noah” the film is the biggest “Jewish” film epic to come on screen in decades. Although both Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel identify publicly as atheists, both were raised in Conservative Jewish families, and worked on their vision for the film through what they describe as “Jewish Midrash”, researching extensively through Jewish texts, apocryphal books and even going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Despite – or more probably, because – of this research, “Noah” the film re-writes the story of Noah in a number of very significant ways, ones that may drive viewers scrambling back to read the original story in Genesis. One of the strangest inclusions in “Noah” was a major elaboration of “The Watchers” (the “Nephilim”, or “fallen ones” from Genesis 6:4), using mostly ex-biblical sources like the books of Enoch and Jubilees. As presented in this film, these large stone creatures (half out of Harry Potter and half from the “Transformers” series, complete with the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella) are angry with humans, but agree to assist Noah in making the ark and protecting him. In the preview screening that I attended, Paramount ran a promotional trailer for the next “Transformers” film (“Age of Extinction”, opening Australia in June). Seeing the stone transformers-like “Watchers” on screen a short time later caused some titters in the audience. We are meant to take “Noah” seriously as a story, and this explicit pop-culture reference was both distracting and unintentionally funny.

More significant than the inclusion of “The Watchers” is what actually takes place just before and on the ark. While the Bible tells us that Noah’s three sons in turn bring three wives onboard the ark, in this film version only one does – and she’s pregnant. And Aronofsky’s fanatical Noah believes that they are all doomed to die anyway, setting the scene for significant family tensions (to say the least). Further, unlike the biblical narrative (forgive the minor spoiler), there is a human stowaway on the ark.

Unlike Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, “Noah” comes to us in full English with no attempts at ancient languages. Here every character sports some version of a British accent (Crowe frequently sounded Australian to me, but perhaps I was imagining it). This follows a long but rocky tradition of accents in biblical epics: British accents work well for Americans (still the primary audience for this film), giving them just enough “remove” to feel sufficiently “ancient”. The word “God” is never mentioned, with everyone simply referring to “the Creator”.

Another way to view “Noah” the film is as a parable on global warming and environmental desecration. This is not an unusual message: the ecological message of living in harmony with nature featured obviously in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar”.

The story of Noah is a popular one: John Huston played Noah in the 1966 film “The Bible”; Steve Carrell played a funny version in “Evan Almighty”; and a 1928 silent version entitled “Noah’s Ark” was blighted by the deaths of three stunt performers while shooting the flood.

Certainly this “Noah” is the darkest version of the story in recent memory. It’s often clumsy and maddeningly uneven, but never less than sincere and entertaining.