Saturday 17 August 2019

From the archive: "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

And lo, Bible-based movies became a pressing concern again for Hollywood. And yea, did the moneylenders seek out Ridley Scott – that one-man strategies and logistics provider – to give this wave of piety renewed structural heft. One theory suggests all Scott’s films – from Alien’s space-trafficking to Gladiator’s slave-trading – are on some level about business, which is why execs keep taking meetings with him. Exodus: Gods and Kings, with its narrative about the rebuilding of a civilisation, does little to disprove it.

Scott’s retelling muscles past the baby in the bulrushes to position its fully-grown Moses (Christian Bale, with East End costermonger’s accent) as a troubleshooter turned union leader, striving to curb the worst excesses of the Ramses regime, from within and without: put simply, where the Pharoah wants pyramids at any price, our hero is on the lookout for a level playing field.

This being a $140m studio movie, there is, inevitably, quite a bit of excess to curb: the guyliner budget alone must have run to a cool half a mil. Popping up between 3D battles, plagues and croc attacks, every passing spear carrier sports a familiar face: you may spot the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Tara Fitzgerald and Ewen Bremner, whose jabbering court advisor bears a funny resemblance to Trainspotting’s Spud. (And you may, like I did, entirely miss Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, who I’m informed is in here somewhere as Joshua.)

The casting team have spent most of their efforts finding lowish-cost Australian actors prepared to camp their material up. Joel Edgerton’s Ramses, who spends his nights in with his top off and a python curled around his neck, is but a body piercing away from the treacherous queerness of Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes in the 300 movies; Ben Mendelsohn does a lot of eyelash-fluttering as the Pharoah’s sexually ambiguous Viceroy.

By contrast, Bale’s Moses, married in a heartbeat to a comely village girl, is clearly conceived as a repository of stout, sandals-on-the-ground heterosexual values; he leaves palatial decadence behind first to work as a shepherd, then to lead the cowed masses to safety. Scott knows he needs his actors to register – even as pantomime heroes and villains – because the story he’s telling has no conventionally identifiable cause-and-effect: it wanders in the desert, and has to wait for the required signs and wonders to appear.

Like February’s Noah, Exodus is interestingly sceptical about these, and unafraid to interrogate its holiest of source material in the search for new meanings. Scott makes one outright misstep in having God as he appears to Moses incarnated by a young boy – presumably the thinking was “well, everyone likes children”. This pipsqueak deity underlines the script’s idea that all these characters are casting around for leadership, but the kid in question is so awkward and stage-school it’s very easy not to believe in him.

The miracles, however, are pleasingly ambiguous. Moses witnesses the burning bush only after getting clonked on the head in a rockfall; the parting of the Red Sea is down to a flukish change of current (and everybody still gets their feet wet); and the Ten Commandments are handed down with all the fanfare of stricter banking regulation. In place of the credulity proposed by several other recent faith-based dramas, Scott imparts a not unwelcome common sense.

The film is well-crafted, holds you for most of its two-and-a-half hours, and may have enough underlying thematic substance to connect with the Horrible Bosses 2 crowd: this Exodus is essentially a lavish fantasy of being liberated from clockwatching drudgery. What it misses is the widescreen daring with which Noah excited us: in this sober undertaking, even the generally crisp and unobjectionable 3D is simply a way of recouping a bit more of the budget.

This may be the difference between a visionary artist and a businessman-artist, and swapping the two projects around gives us a better understanding of these diverse sensibilities. Aronofsky would have burned that bush into our retinas one way or another. South Shielder Scott’s nuts-and-boltsier Noah would have involved two-and-a-half hours of shipbuilding.

(MovieMail, December 2014)

Exodus: Gods and Kings screens on Channel 4 tonight at 11.25pm.

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