Bonkers, bizarre and brilliant in equal measure, it’s fair to say there won’t be another film quite like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah this – or perhaps any – year.
The Bible’s many film adaptations have invariably been of the epic variety; overblown ‘event’ movies that are as extravagant as they are huge.
While Noah doesn’t skimp on the computer-generated bombast, it’s also the product of a singular vision – one that both captivates and infuriates.
Throughout his career, Aronofsky’s films have centred on obsessively driven characters; whether they be the cast of Requiem For A Dream (2000) seeking the next fix, Natalie’s Portman’s ballet dancer going to any lengths to reach the top of the pile in Black Swan (2010), or Hugh Jackman’s various incarnations of the same character searching for the tree of life in The Fountain (2006).
Noah represents his most fanatical character yet – a husband and father whose response to an apocalyptic vision received from ‘the Creator’ is to spend years building a giant ark to save the animal kingdom from the impending flood.
The world Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family inhabit has been ravaged by mankind’s greed and corruption. They eke out a nomadic life away from the rest of humanity in a shattered, lunar landscape (Iceland in reality) ruled by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), descendant of Adam and Eve’s murderous son Cain.
A fearful Tubal-Cain is determined to seize the ark, but must first build an army to overcome the Watchers; crazy-looking fallen angels encrusted in rock who aid Noah in his mammoth task and come across as the craggy cousins of the talking trees from The Lord Of The Rings.
When it finally does come, the flood is impressively staged. The sense of chaotic desperation among Tubal-Cain and his followers to fight their way onto the ark as Noah and the Watchers try to keep them back is both unnerving and edge-of-the-seat stuff. However, the most chilling and indelible image comes later as the last vestiges of mankind cling hopelessly to a rapidly submerging rock, wailing in vain at the nearby ark as Noah blanks out their screams.
It’s a truly nightmarish moment that sets up the film’s final act as an increasingly dogmatic Noah turns his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) against him when he declares his work won’t be finished until the ultimate sacrifice is made.
Just as with The Fountain, Noah is predominately a spiritualist film rather than an overtly religious one (reflective of Aronofsky’s personal beliefs). It also carries an urgent environmental message – as global warming brings with it rising sea levels, scorched earth and dwindling resources, may we too be forced to start again when the proverbial crap hits the fan?
The film has a curious mix of the fantastical (a strange, dog-like beast being hunted by Tubal-Cain’s men; the Watchers; huge stars shining brightly in the daytime) and the grittily authentic. In spite of the larger-than-life connotations of the source material, Aronofsky never lets us forget these are human beings making stomach-churning decisions.
The anger and bewilderment expressed by Shem and Ham towards their merciless father when the screams of those left outside the ark are heard is entirely believable. At one point, a sickened Shem pleads to Noah to let them in, pointing out that not everyone can be ‘guilty’. Noah’s response is to state that every human has a darkness inside of them, a point given form earlier in the film when Noah sneaks into Tubal-Cain’s sin-laden camp and sees a vision of himself giving into his base instincts in order to survive.
By staging the flood halfway through the movie, one imagines Aronofsky aimed for the real drama to take place within the confines of the ark. However, rather than being the dramatic cannonball he was hoping for, this final act curiously fails to engage and ends up going off the deep end. Perhaps it’s Noah’s incessant reiteration that everyone must accept their punishment that ultimately proves the biggest turn off.
Whatever misgivings one may have here are counterbalanced by the much talked about ‘creation sequence’, reinterpreted by Aronofsky’s time-lapsed visuals as the journey of evolution from the big bang (“Let there be light”) to man’s inhumanity to man. It’s a bravura scene that’s worth the price of admission alone.
In his best performance for years, Crowe gives a truly affecting performance of a man being pushed beyond his limits while carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. While a very physical performer, Crowe does his best work with his eyes by showing the terrible emotional pain he endures in order to carry out the Creator’s work.
Connelly’s Naameh is the crux both we and her family lean on to navigate our way through these turbulent waters and her performance is excellent. Winstone does what he does best as the unhinged Tubal-Cain, who appears to be history’s first Cockney, while an ancient-looking Anthony Hopkins has a twinkle in his eye as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah.
In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won’t soon forget.