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Film review: Noah is an extraordinary, uneven epic

Russell Crowe as Noah and Jennifer Connelly as his wife Naamah in Noah. The film makes use of rock giants and tree-growing gizmos to add a touch of Tolkien to the Bible story (CNS)

In purely literary terms, the story of Noah accounts for barely four short chapters near the beginning of Genesis. You could read the source material a great deal quicker than it takes for Darren Aronofsky’s sprawling adaptation to unfold on the big screen. But what this rather extraordinary, often uneven and controversial epic may lack in strict adherence to the Word it nearly – but not quite – makes up for with shafts of cinematic brilliance.

Certainly not since the 1950s, perhaps the golden age of biblical spectaculars, when filmmakers like Cecil B DeMille regularly employed the proverbial “cast of thousands”, has there been anything quite so ambitious as this often eye-boggling attempt to re-create one of the greatest stories ever told using the kind of technology that would have been unimaginable to the Hollywood of yore. However, after a glimpse at the Bible text it becomes clear: Aronofsky, the American director of films spanning drugs drama Requiem for a Dream to the ballet-set thriller Black Swan, and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel have merely used it as a sketch for their spectacular.

After a tantalising depiction of Creation, we meet Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife Naamah (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. They battle alone in a bleak, hostile environment, dominated by Man’s wickedness, that soon, according to Noah’s increasingly vivid dreams, will be destroyed by flood. He interprets this as an edict from the Creator – the word “God” is never used in the film – to save his own family and the animal kingdom by building an ark, surviving the rain and starting civilisation all over again.
And here is where the film rapidly departs from the most familiar take on the tale, mainly because the Bible is, to be sure, more than just a bit sketchy on the actual practicalities for a handful of human beings building the sort of vessel that could house not just themselves but two of every single bird and beast, upright and slithery, that presently roam the earth.

Time to meet hundreds-year-old Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah’s grandfather, a straggly white-haired hermit with magical powers and a twinkle in his eye, and the Watchers, fallen angels who have for their sins been turned into rock giants – perfect, it transpires, for the heavy lifting after the planting of one of grandad’s gizmos appears to have yielded an entire forest with more than enough trees to build… well, you can guess the rest.

So, having now introduced to us a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi, not to mention some Tolkienesque creatures into his yarn, Aronofsky now seemed to require some serious, earthly villainy ahead of the impending tsunami. This arrives in the form of warrior leader Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone, at his hairiest and most shouty) at the head of a horde, who represent the worst kind of violent, meat-eating humanity.
Genesis relates that just Noah, his sons and all their wives floated off with the animals. Here, Tubal-Cain, after failing to halt Noah’s progress on land, becomes a disruptive stowaway. Meanwhile, Shem (Douglas Booth), the eldest offspring, is the only son with a significant other – Ila (Emma Watson, from the Harry Potter saga) who has, thanks again to grandad’s miraculous intervention, suddenly become fecund after being barren.

Since Noah’s stiff-necked adherence to what he regarded as the word of the Creator about ending mankind once his own family had seen out their natural span, Ila’s new-found fecundity poses a new set of moral problems.

Yes, Tubal-Cain – not to be confused with the Cain of Abel-fame, albeit as murderous – is actually mentioned in Genesis an an expert in “brass and iron”. He’s also, if you can spot it between the endless begetting in those early chapters, actually the brother of Naamah, a relationship not even remotely referred to in the film.

And if the name, Ila, sounds entirely unfamiliar, that’s because she is a complete invention.

The likelihood is that the screenwriters have combined biblical and rabbinical texts to produce something – arguably a bit of a literal mish-mash – which has already been condemned in some fundamentalist quarters as downright blasphemous.

I tend to go along with another theory, that this rather well-meaning (if inevitably portentous) extravaganza is more spiritual than religious which, in its attempt to stay comparatively mainstream, borrows from perhaps too many well-worn epic tropes, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings.

As this is, potentially, the great-granddaddy of all epic stories, it’s a shame that the filmmakers couldn’t have, with a slightly shorter running time, relied instead on just the Word.

Three stars

How the ark changed shape: British Museum curator Irving Finkel on how the chance discovery of a Babylonian tablet helped him trace the roots of Noah’s Ark