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Noah

D: Darren Aronofsky / 138m

Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Leo McHugh-Carroll, Anthony Hopkins, Marton Csokas, Frank Langella, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand

It’s an unlikely idea for a fantasy movie, but Noah, as imagined by Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, is exactly that, a semi-religious essay on perceived personal sin and the demands of unwanted destiny tricked out with elaborate special effects sequences and… rock monsters.  The story of the ark is a tale told in many religions – the Biblical version isn’t even the first  – but here, Aronofsky removes any mention of God and has his characters reference The Creator instead.  With this choice in place, the decision to include Adam and Eve, the apple from the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge, and Cain and Abel becomes a little puzzling, especially when the bulk of the film is a fairly straightforward interpretation of chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.

After an opening sequence that conflates the first five chapters, the inclusion of fallen angels – called the Watchers – who came to earth to support Man in his endeavours but were punished by The Creator by being turned into creatures made of rocks – and who were in turn attacked and cast out by Man – comes as a bit of a surprise (it also brings to mind the rock monster seen in Galaxy Quest (1999), not the best point of reference for a Bible story).  From there we see Noah as a young man with his father, Lamech (Csokas).  Lamech is killed by a chieftain called Tubal-Cain (Finn Wittrock); he wants Lamech’s land for his own people (and appears to have instituted the concept of manifest destiny several thousand years before it was first thought of).  Noah escapes and we next see him as an adult (Crowe).  He is married to Naameh (Connelly) and has three young sons, Shem, Ham and baby Japheth.  Noah is plagued by visions of the world covered by water.  He takes his family with him to visit his grandfather, Methuselah (Hopkins), in the hope that he can explain what the visions mean.  On the way they come across the scene of a slaughter, and rescue the only survivor, a young girl called Ila; Naameh quickly deduces that the wound she has will stop her from having children.

Methuselah believes The Creator has chosen Noah for a special task, and induces a vision that tells Noah he should build an ark.  Fast forward several years and with the help of the Watchers, the ark is nearly completed.  Shem (Booth) and Ila (Watson) have fallen in love, while Ham (Lerman) has a rebellious spark in him that Noah is unhappy about.  One day a large contingent of men led by Tubal-Cain (Winstone) come to the ark in an attempt to take control of it but the threat of the Watchers stops them.  Noah goes to their nearby encampment in the search for wives for his sons bout what he sees there, including uncontrollable lusts and signs of cannibalism, convinces him that the Creator’s plan is for the whole of Mankind to be wiped out, including Noah and his family.

Ham also travels to the encampment and there he meets Na’el (Madison Davenport).  At the same time, Ila meets Methuselah for the first time and he blesses her, curing her barrenness.  When the rain begins to fall, presaging the flood, Noah goes in search of Ham.  When he finds him, Noah is forced to leave Na’el behind – she has her leg caught in a trap – and she is trampled to death in the rush by Tubal-Cain’s people to get to the ark.  The Watchers aid Noah in keeping Tubal-Cain and his people from boarding the ark as the earth is engulfed in a terrible flood of water and massive funnels of water shoot skywards from the ground.  Somehow, Tubal-Cain manages to get aboard though he is injured in the attempt.  His boarding is witnessed by Ham, who, being angry with Noah over the death of Na’el, aids Tubal-Cain in his recovery.

Adrift on the waters, Ila learns she is pregnant and while Naameh and Shem are overjoyed, Noah is horrified.  Certain that The Creator’s intention is for all of mankind to be destroyed, he tells his family that if Ila has a girl – meaning further children could be born – he will have no choice but to kill her.  Ila and Shem attempt to escape the ark but Noah stops them.  Moments later, Ila goes into labour… and Ham draws Noah into an ambush with a recovered Tubal-Cain.

Noah - scene

A long-cherished project of Aronofsky’s, Noah reaches us with the weight of expectation weighing heavy about its celluloid shoulders, and while the movie takes quite a few mis-steps in its waterborne journey, there’s a lot here to offset any weaknesses.  Aronofsky is a confident, innovative director and he handles the movie’s themes of sin and redemption, and sacrifice and fortitude, with considerable ease, and is aided by a commanding performance by Crowe.  Between them they have created a Noah who carries the weight of his Creator’s plan with all the strength of purpose and stoicism needed to carry it through.  It’s an impressive turn from Crowe, the kind of meaty role he obviously relishes playing, and here he doesn’t disappoint.  Under Aronofsky’s intelligent direction, Crowe is completely convincing throughout, a patriarch given an unenviable task and determined that even the hardest of personal sacrifices won’t deflect him.  (It’s no surprise how the movie ends, but when the moment comes – and it’s largely thanks to Crowe’s unpredictability as an actor – the audience isn’t certain he’ll relent from killing Ila’s offspring.)

Crowe is ably supported by Connelly and Watson, though some of the aforementioned mis-steps derive from the other male cast members.  Winstone plays a pre-Christian version of (basically) himself, complete with East London accent and mangled phrasing.  Lerman’s boyish face still can’t adequately portray any emotion except surprise (as both Percy Jackson movies will attest), while Booth is wetter than the flood and given too little to do to make a better impression.  And with Crowe on such impressive form it makes the trio’s deficiencies even more obvious.  In particular, this leads to the scenes between Tubal-Cain and Ham appearing leaden and less dramatic than they should be (not to mention too formulaic for their own good).  As for Hopkins, the less said about his truly embarrassing performance the better (though the script should bear some of the blame too.  Berries?  Really?).

Noah is often amazing to look at, with Aronofsky and director of photography Matthew Libatique exploiting Iceland’s volcanic terrain to stunning effect.  There’s a creation sequence two thirds in that looks good but holds up the movie but also seems at odds with the message that the world is the work of The Creator, as if the movie doesn’t want to be explicitly identified as a religious movie (which it isn’t anyway).  It’s this kind of fence-sitting that undermines the movie for most of its running time.  In taking a Biblical story where God seeks to expunge Man from the world only to relent when He sees the good in Noah, Aronofsky seems uncertain if he wants faith to be a central part of things, when clearly it is.  There’s a snake skin – supposedly handed down from the Garden of Eden (yes, from that snake) – that was Noah’s father’s but it’s taken by Tubal-Cain.  It’s referred to visually on several occasions but its purpose or relevance is never made clear, except possibly as a means of passing on inherited knowledge or wisdom (and I’m guessing here, it really isn’t that clear).  Another mis-step is the inclusion of the Watchers, an addition to the flood myth that might be the movie’s most ill-judged decision.  On top of their relation to the monster in Galaxy Quest, once they start laying waste to Tubal-Cain’s followers they most resemble the Ents from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002).  The idea of their being fallen angels is a good one but rock monsters?  Was that the only incarnation they could have had?  (Hang on, let me check my scripture.  Oh, I can’t.)

On a minor level, Crowe’s hair is a serious concern throughout, as is his clothing at the end (is he really wearing a suit at one point?), while Connelly stays the same all the way through.  Aronofsky appropriates some character names: in the Book of Genesis, Tubal-Cain is the son of Lamech and his sister’s name is Naamah (close enough, eh?).  This makes Tubal-Cain and Noah brothers, and Naameh his – well, let’s not go there.

Noah has its strong points, and for much of its running time, Aronofsky has a sure hand on the tiller but too often it trips over itself in its efforts to avoid any potential theological disputes.  In trying to please both sides of the is-there/isn’t-there a God argument, Aronofsky relents on the effectiveness of the drama and avoids making Noah anything more than a man-has-vision-and-does-what-it-tells-him story that lacks the necessary resonance for such a huge responsibility.  Aronofsky should thank The Creator that Crowe took on the role, for without him, what credible dramatic focus the movie has would have been lost.

Rating: 7/10 – on reflection a better movie than it seems while watching it, Noah suffers from its director’s indecisions but regains its edge thanks to Crowe’s intuitive performance; beautiful to look at, and with occasional moments of genius, but only just enough to offset the movie’s larger problems.