From its prophet to its (spoiler alert) parting of the Red Sea, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” presents a more nuanced Moses story than Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic “The Ten Commandments.”
About an hour into Scott’s 21/2-hour biblical epic, however, comes a recognition that biblical epics ought not be subtle. Yes, they should exploit today’s more seamless effects technology and modern acting styles less hammy than the Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner 1-2-3-smolder approach.
But the film and actors still need to be grand, righteous, straightforward. Otherwise, why make a biblical epic? The Bible isn’t subtle.
DeMille understood this, as does Darren Aronofsky, whose 2014 film “Noah” offered adventurous visuals and a character of great conviction. In “Noah,” Russell Crowe showed the same single-mindedness that Heston, as Moses, and Brynner, as his pharaoh antagonist, showed in “Commandments.” Sure, those latter two performers cheesed it up, but you knew where their characters stood.
“Exodus” touches neither of those films in grandeur – it creates a less-believable ancient world and contains fewer compelling action scenes than Scott’s previous sun-and-sandals epic “Gladiator” – nor conviction.
Scott frames “Exodus” as a character study of two men with mixed feelings about their destinies: Moses (Christian Bale), deliverer of the Hebrews from slavery; and Rhamses (Joel Edgerton), the Egyptian heir apparent alongside whom Moses, who starts “Exodus” as an adult Egyptian prince and military general unaware of his Hebrew beginnings, has been raised.
Scott dedicated the film to his late director brother, Tony, which helps explain the tale-of-two-brothers narrative. Or in the film’s case, cousins, since Moses was adopted by Bithiah (Hiam Abbass), relative of Rhamses’ father (John Turturro). The senior pharaoh clearly favors Moses to his son, but after he kicks it, Rhamses becomes king.
The young-adult Moses and Rhamses appear to love each other, but with resentments on Rhamses’ side, because Moses is the superior warrior. It is an interesting dynamic, and it needs to be, since “Exodus” relies so heavily on it, sidelining much of its supporting cast.
Bale and especially Edgerton give layered performances. Such performances are not my biblical-film bag, but that does not take away from the actors.
Bale lends Moses a strong sense of purpose when he helps Rhamses lead the Egyptian army in battle, early in the film, and later, when leading the slaves out of Egypt. But the Moses of “Exodus” is not always a figure of resolve. He does much considering between acts of valor.
Not an especially spiritual man at film’s start, Moses is loyal to the royals who raised him – the same people who have kept the Hebrews in bondage for 400 years. He shows more humanity toward the slaves than the rest of his family does, but he is no bleeding heart.
Bale plays Moses as a contemplative man who needs convincing to change allegiances. After he is informed of his true heritage, he does not immediately join the slaves. His loyalty to the palace ends only when Rhamses banishes him after discovering Moses’ true heritage and – in the eyes of the Egyptian nobility – traitorous potential.
He heads to the desert, where he finds a wife far more religious than he, and becomes a goat herder. Moses’ first clear stirrings of a spiritual life happen only after God speaks to him via burning bush and child proxy (11-year-old Isaac Andrews, a commanding presence).
Once Moses has signed on with God’s plan for him, Bale revives the drive Moses showed in battle. Moses returns to Rhamses’ palace, insisting the pharaoh release his people. Rhamses replies, in essence, that it would take biblical plagues to get him to do that, and even then …
Edgerton’s highly emotional performance contrasts with Bale’s more intellectual one. Rhamses’ fear for his family as God brings down plagues on Egypt, and his desire to prove himself a worthy leader, play on Edgerton’s face, and strongly enough to pierce the fake tan and ethnic inappropriateness.
Rather than cast an actor of color, Scott cast the white Edgerton, who in “Exodus” physically evokes Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra.” This is to say he’s magnetic, beautiful and slathered in make-up. Unlike Taylor, Edgerton sells the character anyway. His Rhamses is a naturally sensitive fellow thrust into a role that forces him to be fierce.
Brynner made a more effective villain, but “Exodus” is not set up for Edgerton to go unambiguously bad. Its first half-hour sits on a precipice between drama and camp. If Edgerton had played Rhamses more broadly, the film would have fallen into camp, which it does not, despite fake-looking visuals.
Scott used practical sets, in a London studio and on location in Spain. Yet his heavy use of CGI shows, especially in the three-dimensional format. “Crowd” scenes look like dioramas observed through 1970s View-Master toys. The scale is wrong: The “people” supposedly sharing a frame with pyramids and other under-construction monuments look ant-size.
Non-CGI people are not much better drawn. There’s no sexy Anne Baxter caught in a triangle with Moses and Rhamses here. Her character, Nefertari (Golshifteh Farahani), does little but stand next to her husband, Rhamses. Sigourney Weaver shows up as Rhamses’ mother, connives a bit, then splits.
Scott rallies visually in the film’s latter half. He imparts the depths of suffering God visits upon the Egyptians after the pharaoh refuses to free the slaves, from boils attacking faces to more calamitous events. He also ratchets up tension with a well-choreographed chariot chase scene.
Lovers of spectacle will have a bone to pick with Scott’s treatment of the Red Sea. Scott has said his approach was in keeping with geologic events of the time.
Visual realism, like a ambivalent hero and villain, captivate in theory but underwhelm in a biblical epic.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Isaac Andrews
Director: Ridley Scott
Rated PG-13 (violence, including action sequences and intense images)