Noah is a bloated biblical epic that’s flat narratively, visually and in its performances says Simon Evans & Luke Ostler as they take a look at Darren Aronofsky’s latest film.
Before reading on, it would be best if we make clear straight away that the aim of this review is not, as it so easily could have been, to discuss how closely Noah resembles any or all religious scripture (although it’ll be a tough ask for God not to crop up at some point). Instead it seems appropriate to first of all focus on this film’s own not-quite-divine creator, director Darren Aronofsky. For a film it is, and that it was made by mortal hands soon becomes abundantly clear.
Aronofsky has been on an upwardly soaring trajectory since his first film Pi was released back in 1998. 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, which many readers will know, may not have been a particular commercial success, but it was received positively by that perennially grumpy bunch, the critics (if not by this critical pairing), who were impressed by the fast editing style and the abhorrent drug-infused world the characters inhabited. Following Requiem, a six-year wait eventually brought the much-troubled production of The Fountain to our screens. This time the box office results were nothing less than a train wreck, but that was the box office’s loss because the film turned out to be a visually sumptuous, utterly beguiling science fiction masterpiece. The close of the noughties brought us the relatively restrained productions of The Wrestler and Black Swan, which, through Academy Award recognition and word of mouth, finally equalled Aronofsky’s now customary critical lauding with the commercial success that had previously eluded him. So far, so history lesson (or should that be religious studies?), but to outline the journey of a director who has proved himself able to turn his hand to any genre and succeed seemed necessary in bringing us to Noah.
This is the big one: the coming-of-age career-zenith Hollywood mega-budget picture. So how does Aronofsky fare? Well, it all begins promisingly. Noah’s father (looking suspiciously like Russell Crowe’s Noah with slightly more grizzled hair) is killed in front of him, and in that moment boy becomes man. We jump forward to Noah and wife (Jennifer Connelly) hanging out in the wilderness with their three children. They shun modern society for the disrespect it shows mother Earth, mother wildlife and probably Swampy, while all the while Noah is plagued by visions of a flooded world inhabited by waterlogged corpses. Convinced the creator is attempting to speak to him, our insufficiently-groomed hero undertakes a perilous journey to Methuselah’s mountain to seek the counsel of his and possibly everyone’s grandfather Anthony Hopkins. From there, the only way is ark.
Hopkins’ turn as the mythical mountain-dweller Methuselah almost steals the show, especially when harassing Noah’s clan for berries. It’s a brief appearance, but he injects the gravitas the film so desperately craves. Crowe’s performance is perfectly acceptable given the unsympathetic role scripted for him, and Frank Langella is worth a mention as a fallen angel, or Watcher, that assists Noah on his journey, although the form he and the other Watchers take will have viewers tilting their heads to one side, furrowing their brows and regretting not paying more attention at Sunday school. That’s where the niceties end, however; Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo McHugh Carrol, playing Noah’s children, are given very little to say and do, and the rare occasions they are allowed to speak soon expose the reasons behind that particular decision. Emma Watson, playing Noah’s adopted daughter, is given a more prominent role but ends up overacting most of her scenes; it’s a disappointment considering the growth demonstrated by her performance in The Bling Ring. Ray Winston, along with Connelly, rounds out the supporting cast. The underused pair do nothing wrong but can’t make much of cardboard-thin characters.
There was an ideal opportunity here to present the glossy and beloved Russell Crowe of Gladiator, but what we get is more akin to the digital dirge of 2010’s Robin Hood. Allow us to get techie for a moment with a broadside at the current state of cinematography in the industry. The financial advantages of shooting on digital have brought traditional celluloid production to the brink of extinction, but at what cost? The end result is a motion picture landscape that, even compared to the films of ten years ago, looks distinctly mediocre. Surely if any movie merits the full treatment it’s a two-and-a-half hour, one hundred and twenty-five million dollar biblical blockbuster featuring megawatt superstar Russell Crowe? There’s plenty of CGI trickery on show, but somehow much of the visuals look on a par with your average episode of Eastenders; the Watchers fail even to reach Dot Cotton levels of realism (she can’t be an actual human, surely…?). The recent release of the visually splendid (and shot mostly on film) The Grand Budapest Hotel, which did much to show the film-making community how things should look, just hammers this point home. Sorry to bring up that particular film again, but we’re still getting over just how good it was!
After all that, let’s build to the crux of the matter. You could, were you pressed for time, have skipped the previous two paragraphs, which contain only irrelevant details; the significance of visuals seem far less when you consider that Lars Von Trier used chalk for walls and a black space for a sunset in Dogville, and was still left with a masterpiece. As for acting, Andie MacDowell tried her best to sink Four Weddings and a Funeral, but even her lack of authenticity failed to ruin a comedy classic. Noah falls flat because of an unconvincing narrative, a roster of unsympathetic characters, a tediously drawn-out running time and a striking dearth of humour. Early on Noah sings to his adopted daughter to comfort her while his family sleeps, giving us a real sense of this man as a kindly protector, but with the leap in chronology the actors are replaced, losing all sense of this rag-tag bunch of performers actually being a family. As the story trundles onwards Noah metamorphoses into an uncompromising religious zealot of the kind that you certainly wouldn’t want in charge of your child’s inner-city secondary school. Given a choice between rooting for Noah’s extremism, his vocally-challenged wife and children, Emma Watson’s over-acting or Winston’s half-baked villain, we ended up praying for the Ark to sink.
If Noah was able to inject just ten per cent of Black Swan’s magic, or indeed five per cent of The Fountain’s, we may have been left with something at least purgatorial. Sadly, the devil has had his wicked way with this one, a biblical epic that’s flat narratively, visually and in its performances. We managed to keep God out of it until now, but it seems that as a creator Aronofsky could learn a lot from the big guy upstairs.