Noah: flawed ambition and deeper truth than literalism

Adapting work from the written word to the screen is always fraught with difficulties; how to please those who want a literal approach (ignoring that this is, of course, impossible); what to leave in and what to leave out; the importance of fidelity to the physical descriptions of the characters in the books. Yes, the written word is hard to translate to the screen. How much harder it becomes when it’s The Written Word (at least in the eyes of some) that you are dealing with.

The story of Noah’s ark and a wrathful deity using a flood to wipe life from the earth is not only one of the most famous stories in the Bible – there are versions of this in many Ancient Near-Eastern cultures and religions. What we’re talking about here is one of the most of the famous stories in human history. As such it’s a myth – and I mean that in the technical sense that there may be greater or lesser degrees of truth in it, but that has been spun and embellished upon by different cultures to create a story that is true in a different sense; that it provides a narrative for a community’s self-understanding and has the status of truth. So, for example, you might argue that Romeo and Juliet is a myth – not literally true, perhaps, but building on elements of literal truth to create a story of universal truth. We all know some star-cross’d lovers.

Still, these days it’s through the Biblical narrative that most of us have come into contact with Noah. It’s a short story – four chapters of the Bible’s first book, Genesis. So if you want to make a film out of it, you do need to embellish, polish and add to it in order to make it work. Which Darren Aronofsky, Noah‘s director, is not afraid to do. His previous films  – PiThe Fountain, Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler,  Black Swan – show that this is a man not unafraid to look downright strange or at least wilfully quirky in pursuit of an especially singular vision. In Noah he takes that to a whole new level.

The film is not so much a traditional Biblical-sword-and-sandals epic as it is Bible remixed with bits of many other traditions in some kind of neo-apocalyptic scorched-earth fantasy landscape, with a 21st century eco-message on planet care into the bargain. Taking in bits of Genesis’ first 6 chapters – creation, fall, Cain and Abel  – was always going to mean the film needed to be creative in just about every way a film can be. The result is dizzying: at times annoying, spectacular, fun, stupid, intelligent, thrilling, profound, shallow, dark, frothy, and sometimes all of these simultaneously. What it never touches is boredom. Even if you end up hating it you’d have to actively try to be bored by it. This is a film and a film-maker with more vision and ambition in any given five minutes than many others achieve in whole careers (Michael Bay, anyone?).

Parts of it just don’t work – there’s a valiant attempt to understand one of the Bible’s most notoriously strange verses:

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)

Gamely this is tackled by portraying fallen angels punished by being turned into Middle-Earth-ish Ent-like creatures made from rock who watch over our heroes (and help them build the huge ark). It probably sounded like a good idea at the time: on-screen it’s just daft. Other creatures are invented, adding to the air of strangeness and other-worldliness that pervades the whole film.

There’s a fight on to get on board the Ark when the rain comes – another addition to the Bible – which is spectacular, convincing and adds a level of danger the film needs to work as a properly engaging story. An adopted daughter is added to Noah’s family to escape the need for incest if humanity is to flourish in the post-diluvian world. She’s played by the consistently sparky, if under-written Emma Watson.

Jennifer Connelly is the highlight of the supporting cast, a wife to Noah who acts as the audience’s way into a character who would otherwise seem too remote, too head-in-clouds. Her’s is a surprisingly subtle performance in a film that always threatens to tip into bombast, saved from such a fate by her grace notes and attention to detail.

At the centre of it all is Noah himself, inevitably played by Russell Crowe, one of the few actors capable of pulling off seemingly total physical transformation. Here he’s the believable saviour-prophet-visionary, the original outdoors-survivalist straddling a frightening present reality and even more frightening coming future. He’s painfully aware of his own imperfection, communicated-with by The Creator (as the deity is referred to) in hints and dreams and drunken haze. He’s convinced, but without the comforting warmth of audible words. He always has to interpret. Which makes it all the more surprising, stark and chilling when, once on the board the ark, he’s faced with a decision and course of action that cuts to the bone. Remaining spoiler-free is hard, but this plot strand is not taken from the Bible’s flood narrative. If anywhere, it’s lifted from Abraham. Whatever the inspiration, it’s a dark passage, the better to explain Noah’s later descent into drinking (referenced in Genesis 9) and the scarred reality of those who live to rebuild after the deluge.

It here’s the film’s greatest strengths lie, alongside the undeniable visual flourishes which simply must be experienced on the big screen. By being brave enough to depart from a literal reading of the Bible’s text – and risking, of course, alienating the film’s biggest target-market – we get a deeper and truer take on faith than would otherwise have been. We see the dangers of certainty or claiming you understand God; we see the often painful reality of living on a base which you know to be true but can barely articulate and never prove; we understand too well the sense of never being understood with which this Noah struggles. Avoiding any sort of attempt at literal truth, it gets to something deeper and more true than literalism. Which for me is the point of the Bible’s earliest chapters.

It’s never enough, though. This film isn’t cinema’s first word on faith and certainly won’t be the last. The best takes on faith are often the truth told slant. In this Noah we have a film of adrenaline fuelled ambition, visually thrilling, flawed in just about every respect by its own immense vision. Given that the Bible’s early chapters aim to provide us with the universal truth of humanity’s constantly flawed grasp and reach, that’s ultimately entirely appropriate.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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One thought on “Noah: flawed ambition and deeper truth than literalism

  1. Good review David. Doesn’t always make the smartest-decisions on what it’s trying to do with this thin source-material, but most of it was still pretty interesting.

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