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There will be flood
When a well-respected, talented independent filmmaker hefts a high budget blockbuster on to his shoulders, the result will always be worth a look. Camus pulls the waders on and joins NOAH and company on the ark.
 
"I'm not interested in these people. Of course I'm going to be
their enemy. I made Black Swan and The Wrestler. I don't
even know how to talk to someone who believes the world was
created in six days and not accept that could be poetry."
Director, Darren Aronofsky on very silly biblical literalists

 

Any casual browser of this site will have picked up from its two most productive writers a certain lack of (ahem) religious respect. While I may defend an individual's right to believe in anything they want or need to get through their day, I see it as almost an obligation to remind people that an adherence to a big book of metaphor written by very frightened men in the infancy of the human race is not necessarily healthy in 2014. If you believe it to be the divine word of God (forgive the tautology) then we are not going to thrive together in conversation or enjoy the exchanging of ideas. So I'm on Aronofsky's wavelength to start with. The idea that Paramount's studio heads wanted to cave in to a simplified fundamentalist reading of the story is garishly comic – and they did test screen a few shorter re-cuts unsuccessfully. I'm glad Aronofsky got his way. So far, his interpretation of the first literary apocalypse has made more than enough money to qualify as a hit despite certain countries banning its distribution on religious grounds. Jesus Christ... This is positive for the industry. If all the sequels and movies based on TV shows represent Hollywood's principal gene pool, then there are severe deformities on their way. Aronofsky's artistic eye and talent for narrative are shots in the arm for cinema and a healthy injection of new genes where they are sorely needed. It may be based on an old tale from an oft-published work but there is nothing unoriginal about Aronofsky's rendering of this, one of the sillier extracts of the biggest unread bestseller in the world.

Hands up those of you who were spared religious studies in your childhood. Despite my cast iron antipathy towards religion, I would consider myself unlucky not to have been told all these stories, acting as they did, as a child's simple bedrock of morality. There may be someone out there who has never heard of Noah but I'm banking on the idea that most of us know that in the Bible, God was unimpressed with his big brained, bipedal creation, the human being, and sought to end every human life at a stroke (doesn't do things by halves, this Yaweh guy). So, God chose Noah (a sprightly five hundred year old, no less) to build a massive wooden ship, save two of each animal species (the innocents) and when the rains came which flooded the entire Earth, he was to sail on until he reached habitable land. That's it really. Let us not be home to Mr. Preposterous (remember Darren's words, this is poetry not magical realism). To any rational human being, every aspect of the story provokes derision and laughter but Aronofsky was very much centred on the apocalyptic side to the tale and as only big budget Hollywood can do, decided to make you accept the preposterous with some careful but studied ingenuity. Effects house Industrial Light and Magic named Noah's effects work as "...the most complicated rendering in the company's history." And it's a testament (sorry) to that work that you never question the validity of the creatures. There is a curious 'blip' on the wide shot of the ark thrust to the top of the flood waters. It looked like someone had snipped five frames out of the shot as the ark suddenly repositions itself... But no film was projected at my screening of Noah despite the movie being originated on celluloid. Could this have been a deliberate rendering mistake? A practical answer to one enormous logic problem was deftly handled and almost thrown away. You have a wooden ship crammed to the rafters with compliant animals, predators and prey... How are they fed? What about the waste? Of course, this giant movie would come undone if the spell were broken. So what's the answer? Walk the corridors with a soporific incense that sends the animals to sleep. That's it – and they are on that ark for almost a year. It's a very clever and pleasing solution to one of the story's more absurd aspects.

One thing you know while you're watching this enormous enterprise is that you are in the hands of a superior visual craftsperson that uses the most extraordinary images to push his narrative along. His interpretations of some of the Bible's metaphors are breathtaking. Not many filmmakers have a crack at creationism with such vibrant and abundant resources. As a fervent and devout atheist, I can still say these images are inspiring and impressive and in some cases astoundingly literal. But there's not a dud shot in the entire film and there's a great deal to admire. I asked my son how he would visually interpret God delivering a message to Noah. It's a tough one. You can't see God in the clouds, too Monty Python. And using WhatsApp may be modernising the tale an app too far. In many ways, cinema is the perfect medium to express divine deliberations. By using biblical iconography (the snake, the forbidden fruit and Cain's raised weapon) we always know when Noah is having a vision. There's one brazenly anachronistic scene when Noah is recounting creation to his family underlining why humankind had to be destroyed – its heartless devotion to aggression and violence. We see silhouettes of two soldiers from every war ever fought, including modern ones, endlessly striking each other down. It's an arresting image, one that I will take away with me. The other stand-out visual jaw dropper concerns the Watchers, giant multi-limbed rock creatures usually more at home in Middle Earth or Galaxy Quest. These are fallen angels who assisted humankind after the fall and then were set upon by those they originally helped. We see them form by crashing to Earth and becoming wedded to the soil and the rocks. It's an undeniably poetic and mesmeric image inspired by oil-covered birds. These creatures (Noah's army in effect) may give some of us pause (they are very 2014 CG) but they are necessary for a number of reasons, not least their practical talents when it comes to building giant wooden ships. In battle as they fall, God accepts them back to Heaven in other startling images of ascension.

The media, as we all know, distort and fudge anything approaching their version of the truth. But when it comes to certain celebrities, some don't do themselves many favours in the PR department. Russell Crowe is an excellent actor who has managed to place an aggressive and curmudgeonly man in the public consciousness. His contempt for Mark Lawson in a frankly embarrassing interview on Radio Four's Front Row actually prevented me from seeing his Robin Hood (Crowe felt his accent was slighted and after some cringe worthy Q & A, he walked out). I could imagine George Clooney laughing at the comment and saying something like "God, it wasn't deliberate..." and charming his way out. So with Crowe's public persona and behaviour pushed to the back of my mind I tried really hard to accept the Antipodean as Noah. I needn't have tried that hard. He's magnificent. He owned the role. The man has gravitas emanating from him like radio waves. He doesn't take a single misstep and is commanding and troubled, authoritative and inspired and I take my hat off to him. He goes on quite a journey in the film and in the stand out emotional scene, which I do admit brought some mist to my eyes, he is startlingly good. But I must place another hat on in order to take it off for another member of the cast who performed like I have never seen her perform before. I am not denigrating the great work by the rest of the cast at all, all of whom were exemplary, but Emma Watson as the adopted Ila was a huge surprise. OK, let's say that she got better after each Harry Potter movie but in Noah, she has taken on real depth and in the scene with Crowe (you'll know it when you see it), she gives as good as she gets. I was swept up in the dynamic between them and she was utterly and heartbreakingly convincing.

The world in which Noah is set is unnamed and unspecified in time despite our acceptance that it's biblically placed a few thousand years ago by default. Its production design indicates that we're in a post-apocalyptic world (all very Mad Max 2 fashions sans internal combustion engines) which is wonderfully ironic and the organic cities are seething cesspools of wickedness, animal violence and sin by the ark-ful. Noah was shot in northern Europe (which movie kick started this extraordinary exodus to these barren climes? Was it Prometheus or Oblivion?) and so we are asked to accept that Noah and his family eke out a living on gathered berries. Carnivorous tendencies are not only frowned upon but are a badge of amoral distinction among Noah's antagonists. Aronofsky wisely cast as Noah's enemy an actor that certainly could give Crowe a violent run for his shekels. I'm trying to think of an underpowered performance by our own Ray Winstone (all I can come up with are his rather naff television commercials for Bet365). He shakes the movie up by simply surviving the flood and half convincing Noah's son, Ham – who's failed to secure himself a mate for the post-diluvial existence thanks to his father's intervention – that his father is his enemy. Winstone's a welcome addition to the ark representing  (in fact the personification of) everything Noah is seeking to eradicate. Needless to say, regular collaborator, composer Clint Mansell and his superbly evocative score push Aronofsky's visual beauty to its full emotional effect.

I'll end on a line that made me snort my Fruit Shoot... Ila (Watson) was found injured as a child and was brought up by Noah's family knowing she was unable to bear children. Something happens that cures this and realising it, she utters the line that pulled me up short. Before I share it, let's remind ourselves of what's happened up until this point;

    1. A man has had visions that he interprets are from a divine creator.
    2. With a magic seed, a forest grows in seconds.
    3. With giant, living rock creatures he builds an enormous waterproof ark.
    4. Every species of animal walks quietly in to the ark.
    5. All the animals are held in an incense-inspired suspended animation.
    6. The giant flood kills every human being on Earth.
To the news that she's pregnant, Ila says "That's impossible!" Priceless. She obviously hadn't seen the movie but I urge you to. Aronofsky's an artist to keep an eye on as long as he keeps his own keen and his movies as emotionally resonant as this one. Bravo.
Noah

USA 2014
138 mins
directed by
Darren Aronofsky
produced by
Darren Aronofsky
Scott Franklin
Arnon Milchan
Mary Parent
written by
Darren Aronofsky
Ari Handel
cinematography
Matthew Libatique
editing
Andrew Weisblum
music
Clint Mansell
production design
Mark Friedberg
starring
Russell Crowe
Jennifer Connelly
Ray Winstone
Anthony Hopkins
Emma Watson
Logan Lerman
Douglas Booth
Nick Nolte
Mark Margolis
Kevin Durand
UK distributor
Paramount Pictures UK
release date
4 April 2014
review posted
19 April 2014