Review: Noah (2014)

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Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriters: Ari Handel & Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth & Frank Langella
Runtime: 138 min // Certificate: 12a

Pi; Requiem for a Dream; Black Swan… three of the greatest films of the last two decades, all directed by a man whose stories deal primarily in darkness, desperation and depravity. Darren Aronofsky is, if nothing else, a cynical fucker who relishes the chance to explore the deepest, most intractable desires, evils and fears of humanity. It should come as no surprise then that Noah – his first foray into “blockbuster” cinema – is far more concerned with Noah the man than the intricate details of the classic myth that we all learnt as children.

I want to start by dealing with the elephants in the room (apparently they marched in two by two, hurrah, hurrah… sorry). Ahem, anyway; Noah is not a religious film. It never purports to be a religious film – in fact, it is all but indifferent to religion – so the offence that certain people have taken to it is dumbfounding though, tragically, utterly unsurprising. I mean fair enough, it’s obviously heavily influenced by religion and mythology (key word being mythology…) but so are all modern stories when you think about it. However, you don’t see anyone creating a shitstorm about the fact that Marvel’s Thor isn’t an accurate interpretation of Norse mythology though do you?

Of course this doesn’t mean that the film isn’t more heavily influenced by religion than most, but that still doesn’t make it a “religious” story. Then again, in the spirit of its numerous religious influences, Noah is bonkers, inconsistent and jam-packed with indefensible murder, prolific incest and bearded men kickin’ ass and takin’ names… so, in that respect at least, I guess it is sort of religious. It starts off with a montage that covers the whole of creation in about half-a-minute and just gets weirder from there, though that seems reasonable enough to me. After all, it’s a tale about a bloke who builds a massive boat to house two of each animal in existence while a fuck off flood destroys the planet so it was hardly going to be bastion of nuance and realism was it?

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Nonetheless, I think you’ll probably know whether or not you’re going to like Aronofsky’s Noah within the first couple of minutes. It’s clear that he’s gone, for the most part, for spectacle over substance, though that’s far from a bad thing. After covering creation, Aronofsky introduces us to the Australian Noah (Crowe), the film’s cockney-accented villain Tubal-cain (Winstone), an old Welshman living in a mountain (Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins), a bunch of gruff rock angels known as the Watchers and Noah’s whiny family. Hold on, what? Rock angels… what!?

Erm, well, yeah; remember Onyx from Pokémon? Well, imagine if they cloned him, stuck a bunch of fallen angels in him and got people like Nick Nolte and Frank Langella to voice the clones. These bizarre creatures are perhaps the clearest example of how bonkers this film is (though, incredibly enough, the Watchers aren’t an Aronofsky creation; they’re part of biblical mythology…), and if you can’t accept them then you’re gonna struggle with the rest to be honest. See, Aronofsky clearly understands how universal the tale of Noah is – we all know it, whether we’re religious or not – and so, in order to put his own stamp on it, he just goes nuts and does whatever the fuck he likes. And you know what? It’s sort of marvellous. The film is, at least in its first two acts, unashamedly wacky and, as such, a great deal of fun. It’s inconsistent in the extreme (who knew, for example, that there could be so many accents in such a concentrated area of land…), it doesn’t always work and it threatens to collapse under the weight of its own ambition at any given moment, yet it’s still infectiously engaging.

Then, alas, it all starts to go a bit wrong. The main problem is that the two most interesting arcs (pun totally intended) of the story – the rebelliousness of Noah’s second son Ham (Lerman) and the descent of Noah himself into maniacal tyranny – go underexplored to a near fatal degree. This is further hampered by the fact that the women – Noah’s wife Naameh (Connelly) and his adoptive daughter Ila (Watson) – are all but surplus to requirements for much of the film, which is a particular shame as I think Connelly gives the best performance by far. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of decent stuff going on but once it enters the final act the film never quite plumbs the depths of human darkness that it promises to. Aronofsky seems to have been hampered, primarily, by the film’s 12A rating, meaning that while he is able to suggest a lot of things, he never gets to explore them properly.

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On a more technical level, the film showcases some wonderful visuals during the apocalyptic flood but flounders when it comes to the scenes that, in theory, should have been much easier to create. There are a few montages – of creation, Eden and birds flying – that look… well, really fucking bad. They’re almost cartoonish and they really do serve to rip you out of the drama while you attempt to comprehend what, exactly, you’ve just witnessed. Perhaps it’s all part of the aforementioned wackiness, I don’t know, but I’m just not sure what Aronofsky was thinking. When you compare it to the spectacular flood, or the sight of thousands of men marching on the ark, it looks so cheap and lazy. In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor problem of course, and one that doesn’t take much away from the film’s earlier achievements, but I did find it distinctly off-putting.

Nonetheless, I still think Noah is a somewhat miraculous success. It shouldn’t work at all, so it’s to Aronofsky’s credit that parts of it are brilliant. I think the casting of Ray Winstone as the villain is inspired because it sets the tone for the film’s chaotic, barmy approach to things and he does a fine job of playing the guy we love to hate. Crowe is also good as Noah, though he’s always been perfect for these types of roles. I don’t think it all works – heck, some of it fails spectacularly badly – but when it does work it’s just incredible… albeit in its own baffling way.

If you’re looking for a Ben Hur-esque biblical epic, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Noah is pure, unabashed, fantasy-driven escapism which has as much fun with the material as it possibly can. The dismissals of it as inaccurate are laughable (how can a myth be inaccurate!?), though I can see why some people might have been a bit taken aback by Aronofsky’s sheer gall. Then again, anyone who has seen any of his other films shouldn’t really be surprised. Noah ain’t perfect – far from it – but it’s well worth a look just to appreciate how ambitious it all is.

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