Movie News & Reviews

Movie review: Epic ‘Noah’ buoyed by acting

The Bible and modern filmmaking technology combine beautifully and sometimes thrillingly in Darren Aronofsky’s epic “Noah.” Yet the best thing about the film is its cast, flawless down to the last toucan and salamander.

Word that Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) was interpreting the Genesis story for the screen prompted concern from religious groups who do not want Hollywood going too far off Scripture.

Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel add subplots and characters to illustrate the circumstances that led to Noah’s quest to save innocent living things from God’s wickedness-washing flood. And they add details the story left out, like what was said among the participants during the ark-building process and those 40 days and 40 nights of rain.

But “Noah,” though certainly filled with flourishes, does not radically change the basic story. Still, there certainly will be those who object to Aronofsky taking any poetic license.

But they really cannot find fault with the overall reverence the director brings to the idea of God’s omnipotence. In “Noah,” God is creator of the world, its ultimate judge and a force that the good of heart, like Noah, must obey.

Plus, if Aronofsky had followed the Bible to the letter, the characters would be hundreds of years old. Nobody wants to see that on an IMAX screen.

Underscoring Aronofsky’s dead-serious approach to this material is the presence of Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly as Noah and his wife. Nobody’s better at playing serious than these two.

Crowe and Connelly also played spouses in “A Beautiful Mind,” with Connelly winning an Oscar for her role. The pair share the gift of being able to appear grave and determined without ever seeming sanctimonious.

Each can ground a high degree of drama with depth of feeling. And there is little that’s more dramatic than God choosing you to ride out a humanity-erasing storm.

But the performances in “Noah” are uniformly fine, meaning Aronofsky must be credited as well. Aronofsky directed Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”) to an Oscar nomination and Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) to a win, and helped Connelly revive her career with her fearless performance (but also one I wish I could un-see) in the director’s trippy “Requiem for a Dream.”

He brings out the best in actors. Emma Watson, who plays Noah’s adopted daughter, finally seems fully grown up on screen. Her role requires a lot of angst – the details of which we will not reveal here – that Watson really makes you feel.

Aronofsky also achieved something few other modern directors have: He put frequent scenery-chewer Anthony Hopkins in a long gray wig as Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, yet somehow kept Hopkins from even nibbling.

“Noah” gives Hopkins the wig, a role of literally biblical proportions and every other reason to go over the top. Yet he doesn’t. He is subtle, warm and grandfatherly.

Methuselah and Noah come from goodness, as descendants of Seth. But the descendants of Cain have run wild, killing and trading women for meat.

Their king, Tubal-cain (a powerful Ray Winstone) thinks the Creator abandoned them long ago. He considers himself ruler of men.

Though the Cain descendants’ behavior is ugly, everyone’s surroundings are stunning. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique lends a grand visual sweep to shots of lush greens and blues. Shot on Long Island and in Iceland, “Noah” resembles “The Lord of the Rings” films more than sun-and-sand epics such as “The Ten Commandments.”

Some visual wonders are natural, others created by the always innovative Aronofsky and his effects team. A forest springs up out of nowhere to offer Noah materials for the ark. Aronofsky uses vibrant, dreamlike montages to show the progress of wickedness from Adam, Eve and the serpent to Noah’s generation.

God’s message to Noah first comes in a dream, then is teased out more from a potion given to him by Methuselah. Noah, his wife, three sons and adopted daughter spend years building the ark – their progress charted by a real ark that the makers of “Noah” constructed for the production according to the Bible’s specs.

The squarish ark is not especially pretty, but creating a physical ark instead of a computer-generated one offers an important sense of scale. A vessel big enough to carry two of every species, would, during its erection, draw a lot of attention. And it does in “Noah.”

It’s such a spectacle that the animals are drawn to it. Though the movie’s snakes and birds and bears are CGI creations, their movement seems natural enough as they file toward the ark.

Tubal-cain and his army come to see what the fuss is about, forcing a showdown between Crowe and Winstone, one of the few actors whose combination of vocal depth, physical presence and acting chops rivals Crowe’s.

But Noah and the wicked king are not as well-matched as they look, since Noah has God on his side along with the Watchers, who are giants composed of rock. Aronofsky based the Watchers on Nephilim, from the Bible.

Or at least that’s the story. They also seem uncannily like the Stone Giants from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

And a dimly lit battle scene looks like a million other battle scenes in which most of the fighters are descendants of computer chips.

Yet these are among the few aspects of “Noah” that strike you as implausible. And remember: We are talking about a story in which a centuries-old man is urged to build an ark to survive 40 days and 40 nights of apocalyptic rain with a bunch of wild beasts. But Aronofsky makes us believers in his cinematic vision.

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