Saturday, 24 May 2014

EPIC: Noah (2014)

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Noah (USA, 2014)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth

Back in April I wrote an article for WhatCulture! about the career of Jennifer Connelly to mark the release of this film. In a section covering Requiem for a Dream (which remains her finest performance), I said that the film's director, Darren Aronofsky, "likes to mess with your head. His films are hugely ambitious, visually extravagant, narratively complex and often push the boundaries of what an audience can stand, in terms of taste or style of storytelling."

 
Though I wrote these words before seeing Noah, they are an apt way of describing my feelings towards the film. It's impossible to just dismiss it as a bloated, overblown folly, since there are a number of interesting ideas in there which are approached intelligently. Equally, calling it a masterpiece of any kind is far too generous, since the film is riddled with faults, particularly in its second half. In the end, all you can say about Noah is this: it is a flawed but fascinating epic, whose many shortcomings make its successes all the more intriguing.
 
Before we begin to analyse it, we should probably address the controversy that the film has created among religious communities. There are opinions on both sides within both the Christian and Jewish faiths, with responses ranging from the film being a valuable document of an important story to a Kabbalistic tract which doesn't even mention the Creator as being God. Perhaps the most measured response is that of Justin Welby, the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, who described it as "interesting and thought-provoking" - an ambiguous and typically Anglican turn of phrase, designed to avoid or mitigate this kind of controversy.
 
It is, frankly, both foolish and narrow-minded to view Noah purely in terms of its relationship to the Biblical story - in other words, to reject it outright if it doesn't literally correspond to our accepted version. The account in Genesis is relatively short and has a lot of gaps in the story where time passes - gaps that have to be explained if an audience will continue to suspend their disbelief. There have been animated treatments of this story in short form, both humourous (Disney's Silly Symphonies) and serious (the BBC's brilliant Testament series), but to make it work as a feature film, the story simply has to be expanded. The language of Hollywood is different to the language of the Bible; in order for us to get anywhere, there have to be concessions.
 
To try and address this problem, Aronofsky bring in elements of other creation or flood stories, particularly those from the Gnostic or Mystical elements of the Jewish tradition. It is from this that we derive the fallen angels or Watchers (spiritual beings imprisoned in rock), the serpent's skin having magical properties, and the idea of Adam and Eve only gaining a recongisable physical form after eating the forbidden fruit.
 
Aronofsky's main reason for this - aside from an interest in Kabbalah present in his other works - is to address some of the logistical and technical questions that a modern audience may have about the story. For example, the Watchers provide an explanation as to how the Ark was able to be built in what seems a short space of time, and the descendents of Cain (led by Ray Winstone's character) give things an extra sense of urgency. For viewers who haven't grown up with faith or regard the concept as somehow anti-intellectual, such explanations are welcome even if they're not always completely believable.
 
You have to admire what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah. On the one hand, he is attempting to bring the Biblical epic into the 21st century, explaining for modern audiences what previous generations may have taken for granted. On the other hand, he tries to address the story in humanistic or even atheistic terms, telling the story of Noah as that of a man suffering delusions and uncertain over what his awful visions mean. Trying to tell a Christian story in a 'post-Christian' world can be a tall order at the best of times, but trying to combine it with an alternative interpretation of the same story is really challenging. Aronofsky is trying to pull together multiple versions and interpretations of the story of Noah to try and find a common, greater truth in among the details - a task that is by no means easy and which is highly commendable.
 
To this end, Noah is filled with some truly fantastic and striking imagery. The CGI is impressive on a general level, with Industrial Light and Magic giving the Watchers a real physicality and bringing a forest convincingly to life out of nowhere. But the most impressive sections are Noah's visions, in which he images his feet sinking into the blood-soaked earth, then finds himself underwater drowning in a sea brimming with corpses. At times the film is truly terrifying, and its nightmarish feel is a welcome change from the more fresh-faced, sanitised versions of the story.
 
Up until the battle for the Ark, Noah is a very interesting if bizarre portrait of a man following his faith, in a manner which is somewhat condusive to the Biblical story. There are some silly moments in this section (such as Anthony Hopkins' performance as Methusalah) but it is a well-written drama, whose characters have believable and complex motivations, and in which the role of God is left open to interpretation. Much of this is made possible through Connelly, who gives a great performance as Noah's wife Naameh.
 
But once the battle happens and the Ark 'sets sail', the film slowly begins to unravel and becomes steadily more indulgent. Once the action is solely confined to the boat, the film begins to plod, as if it was searching around for something interesting or shocking to do in order to fill the many days and nights. Because there is less sense of momentum, all the plot points that are introduced feel jarring and awkward, and the film slowly becomes less interesting and less believable.
 
The two biggest missteps that the film makes are epitomised by its central male performances. On the one hand, having Winstone's character stow away on the Ark rests on a massive contrivance: if he had really hacked his way in like that, chances are that the whole thing would have sunk. This in itself could have worked, providing tension and surprise, but instead the character becomes a lazy cipher for all the evils in Man, and Logan Lerman isn't skilled enough either to hold his own against Winstone or to make his decisions that result from his presence seem believable.
 
On the other hand, Noah himself undergoes a jarring shift from man of faith to psychopath in under 20 minutes. It's all very well showing Noah as having survivor guilt and wondering whether he has done the right thing - all of that is believable and interesting. But to suddenly have your main protagonist turn around and say that everyone he was worked hard to save should be killed, including his own children, is a huge betrayal of trust.
 
There's nothing wrong with having Noah as a morally ambiguous protagonist, who may tip over into darkness and despair but is compelling in the way he behaves and the decisions that he makes. But Aronofsky's Noah doesn't do this. Instead, it presents him as a good man with good intentions, who is doing the right thing in building the Ark, and then out of nothing decides to makes him a monster. Having worked so hard to make Noah so appealingly ambiguous, Aronofsky plants his flag in the sand and compromies the whole project. Even if do you buy the character development, the conflict that results is so dragged out that it becomes difficult to sit through.
Noah also fails to address other problems or discrepancies with this story. We might buy into the explanation of how the animals are put to sleep, but the death of one animal is glossed over without giving us an idea of how the new creation's nature is permanently altered by its absence. The film tries to shed light on the rejection of Ham by giving said character more agency, but ultimately its explanation isn't dramatically satisfying. Finally, with the flood now gone, it leaves us with no idea - well, no comfortable ideas - of how the human race will repopulate itself from just two baby girls. Having done the legwork to explain things in the first half, moments like this are inexcusably lazy.
 
Noah is an admirable yet ridiculous epic, a film that can neither be entirely dismissed nor unconditionally embraced. Aronofsky's ambitions for the story are very interesting, and taken on a visual level alone the film is quite extraordinary. But it's ultimately hobbled by several poor narrative decisions and a feeling of needless, growing indulgence. In the end it's neither a triumph nor a tragedy, balancing, like the Ark on Ararat, somewhere in the middle.

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You can read my WhatCulture! on Jennifer Connelly in full here.

NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

2 comments:

I still haven't seen it but would like to. From what else I've heard your review sounds correct. There doesn't seem to have been any explanation of why Noah turns psycho in the end, apart from to remind viewers that people acting from religious motivations are nutters who are definitely evil.

Thanks for commenting Steve. I'd love to hear your opinion when you end up seeing it :)

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