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Review: Noah

This retelling of Noah is a deranged, sporadically brilliant, but ultimately flawed mess. James Tyas reviews.

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Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russel Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson

You do wonder how the director of Requiem for a Dream and self-confessed 'atheist Jew', convinced a major film studio to bankroll his $125m biblical epic. Noah is a deranged, sporadically brilliant, but ultimately flawed mess. Despite Paramount attempting a more Christian-friendly cut, the director's version won out. Noah is unmistakably a Darren Aronofsky film with, for better or worse, all that that entails.

Years of being told and retold in pop-up books and nursery rhymes had neutered the story of the great flood, draining it of any real meaning. Aronofsky, to his credit, has made it mean again, reimagining it as a radical environmentalist fable. His world is neatly divided into the righteous and the sinful. Noah's worthy clan spend their days foraging in a despoiled wilderness. Meanwhile, the descendents of Cain, led by Ray Winstone's thuggish warlord, injudiciously ravage the earth of its resources, felling trees, digging mines and slaughtering animals like its going out of fashion. Despite their righteousness, Noah's family are subtly irritating. You imagine if they were transplanted to the present day, they'd be holier-than-thou staycationers who take their kids to music festivals and drone on about kale.

Touted as "the least biblical biblical film ever," Noah sets out its stall early on with the introduction of the decidedly apocryphal rock-encrusted fallen angels. These lumbering CGI ents assist Noah in constructing the ark and protect it when the feral hordes seek sanctuary from the apocalyptic deluge. The design of the ark down to the last cubit notwithstanding, the few verses in the bible devoted to this story are notoriously scant on detail. It's consistent with Aronofsky's auteurish tendencies, then, that he chooses to yadda-yadda the building of the ark. Years pass, and a wooden edifice with the dimensions of a satellite town B&Q hoves into view. Similarly, the animals in Aronofsky's Noah are only given a cameo. We see them from above, entering the vessel as an ill-defined mass of brownish CGI. Upon entering, they're promptly knocked out using some kind of anaesthetising incense that's probably made from hemp. Aronofsky skips the story's most famous elements and is happier to wrestle with the questions that the source material throws up in attempt to tease out moral ambiguities, and make sense of a nonsensical Old Testament narrative.

Noah (Russell Crowe) spends much of the film brooding, which befits someone whose commitment to divine obligation has made him a conspirator to mass genocide. Crowe is brilliant as a man tormented by survivor's guilt, forced to quell any empathetic tendencies and suffer his family's contempt in order to carry out his task. His performance holds the film together when it threatens to fall apart.

Following a CGI-spectacle-by-numbers battle sequence, Noah suffers from a juddering loss of momentum. As the ark bobs around a newly depopulated earth, the film becomes a domestic melodrama with an unexpected ark guest, and filial tensions reach fever pitch for a slightly overheated denoument. The audience's patience is rewarded with a showy time-lapse reconstruction of the story of creation. Aronofky's centrepiece veers wildly between being visually stunning and looking like something off of a poster for a psytrance night.

Aronofsky plays all this so earnestly that moments of unintentional comedy are inevitable. One such moment comes when Methusela (Anthony Hopkins) asks his great grandson what he likes best in life, to which Japheth replies "berries". Methusela agrees and spends the remainder of the film foraging for berries. By some miracle, he finds one amongst the moss moments before being washed away by the great wave. It's profoundly silly but the director probably wouldn't think so.

Like its central character, Noah suffers from its own irreconcilable impulses. Aronofsky tasked himself with doing something many have tried but few have managed: smuggling ruminative art into the multiplex. A difficult line to tread certainly, but he just about pulls it off. That said, for all its revisionist flourishes and arresting imagery, the storytelling is often ploddingly conventional and prone to cliche. In truth, Noah is possibly a film more fascinating in theory than in practice. Aronofsky's ark is one to be boarded tentatively.

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