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Reviews

Noah

Gareth Higgins

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Cert 12A, 138 mins

Darren Aronofsky has always made films about 'the last man' - or in the case of Black Swan, the last woman. Pi had a mathematician searching for the number at the beginning of the universe; The Fountain had a cancer researcher/conquistador/apocalyptic astronaut hybrid. He's after the seeker, the one who hears voices that may be echoes from the future or deep time, the one who will step out into the next phase of evolution - of an individual, or a species, or a planet.

So Noah is fertile territory. The postmodern sensibilities of Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel bring a focus to the question of man's responsibility to man (and nature), but they upend the biblical epic's obsession with - actually, terror of - literal readings of the text (or at least readings that meet with the approval of the Bible police). Noah is actually Midrash - Judaism's way of interpreting the gaps in the scriptural narrative. Let's face it, the idea that a loving God would kill all human beings except one family who put loads of animals in a boat so that they can eventually repopulate the world is ripe for some Midrashing. And what Aronofsky and Mandel do with it is remarkable. While fundamentalist Christianity takes this story literally, it tends to shrug off or ignore the part about genocide with a 'God said it so it must be true, and we shouldn't second-guess God'. At the same time, critics of religion like Bill Maher don't realize that by denouncing anyone who finds the Bible a source of life, they are also taking it literally in the way that many progressive Christians don't. But Noah takes the scriptural narrative seriously as a work of literature and myth - a story that tells something about the nature of reality and what it means to be human.

Noah doesn't 'hear' the voice of God, he just 'senses' that something is coming. And he's not perfect. Initially he's so concerned for moral purity that he allows others to die. Later he comes to a point of believing that his task involves not perpetuating the human race in a more noble way, but disappearing after the animals have been saved. In the most telling moral turning point, Noah figures out how to grow up - realizing that the willingness to kill for reasons of purity boundaries was the problem in the first place (itself an echo of The Fountain, where Hugh Jackman's character realizes he has everything he needs already, and might have wasted his life fighting a battle that cannot be won).

Russell Crowe invests Noah with authority and vulnerability; Jennifer Connelly is strong enough to balance and challenge him; Anthony Hopkins is a lovely Mr Rogers-esque Methuselah; and Logan Lerman figures out how to show Seth as the next spin in the cycle of rebellion, questioning, confusion and hope.

The film is flawed: the director didn't quite understand how to portray Ray Winstone's Tubalcain as both enraged and overwhelmed; it's a little too heavy on the Middle Earth-evoking uniforms and design; and the portrayal of the Nephilim as fallen angel rock creatures threatened to turn the film into Clash of the Titans. But these are small concerns with an otherwise accomplished film. It's an attempt at making a psychologically- grounded biblical epic, renouncing old school performances that are Dignified with a capital 'D', inviting the audience to consider, among other things, just why a boy's rite of passage involves wearing the skin shed by the snake that represents evil. There is much more life to be had in that question than in dozens of traditional biblical films.

What does Noah want? I think he wants to be good, and eventually to forgive. Like the rest of us. What does Aronofsky want? To show us that the stories on which our culture is founded deserve to be questioned, just as the characters in them often did, or reformulated as in the magnificent section in which Noah retells the story of how the world came into being. In so doing, he's made something remarkable: a biblical epic that Carl Jung might enjoy, and he's made me want to read the Bible again.