Exodus: Gods and Kings – Review by David Turpin
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Kinglsey, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver.
After turning in the worst film of his chequered career with 2013’s Cormac McCarthy-scripted The Conselor, Ridley Scott is seemingly on safer ground with the cumbersomely titled Exodus: Gods and Kings, a characteristically epic-scaled retelling of the Old Testament story of Moses. No expense has been spared in putting this story on screen, and perhaps unsurprisingly for a film that cost $140 million to produce, Exodus faces the task of being all things to all people. Hence, while the miracles and plagues of the Old Testament story are lavishly presented, each one is also accompanied by a flimsy “scientific” explanation, usually dispensed with in a couple of lines. In some ways, this is an unfair burden for any film to have to shoulder – after all, in what genre other than the Biblical film would filmmakers be required to obfuscate the issue of their belief, or lack of it, in the literal truth of their storyline? Nevertheless, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which opened last spring, represented a much bolder attempt to retell a sacred narrative on secular terms, repurposing the Old Testament as science-fiction. Exodus, on the other hand, merely tries to fudge the line between believers and non-believers – a line that is, by definition, exceedingly hard to fudge.
That being said, the plagues and miracles are the only department in which Exodus really delivers. The plague of crocodiles, particularly, is thrillingly realised, and the deaths of Egypt’s firstborn sons are tastefully yet creepily handled. The Parting of the Red Sea is initially hamstrung by pseudoscience (apparently it had to do with “strong currents”), but it climaxes with a satisfyingly titanic tsunami. Moses’ tête-à-têtes with the Lord are less confidently rendered, with God here visualised as a bossy little boy (played by Isaac Andrews) who appears after Moses sustains a bump to the head. The device isn’t wholly dissimilar to Scott’s use of David Bennett as an all-seeing elf in Legend (1985), although Andrews does not possess Bennett’s authentic otherworldliness.
With Scott’s attention firmly on the visuals, the cast are left to sink or swim. As usual, Christian Bale devotes his performance to squaring the circle between mumbling and bellowing. One might even suspect this Moses had stopped off at the Marriage at Cana on the way to the set, if that wasn’t the wrong Testament. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, is at sea as Ramses, his glum performance flecked with awkward lunges at camp (notably in a scene involving snakes). This correspondent hasn’t seen an actor look less comfortable with his costuming since Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) – which also starred Edgerton.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Sigourney Weaver, mystifyingly cast in a bit part as Ramses’ mother, appears to be playing her frustrated Connecticut housewife from The Ice Storm (1997), stranded at a costume party with nothing to do. John Turturro is muted as Seti, and Aaron Paul makes little impression as Joshua, spending most of his screen time peering at things from a distance. Prize ham Ben Kingsley goes in the opposite direction, overplaying wildly as Nut. Others fare better, notably Hiam Abbass, briefly seen as Bithia, and María Valverde, who cuts an appealing figure as Moses’ wife, Zipporah. Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as the Pharaoh’s viceroy is pure moustache-twirling pantomime, but he brings a welcome levity to the proceedings. The film’s special effects are as spectacular as one could wish for, although Dariusz Wolski’s occasionally spectacular cinematography is hobbled by murky 3D.