Saturday, 3 January 2015

Film Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

© 20th Century Fox | Source: 

UK, USA, Spain; 150 min.; Bible adaptation, adventure, drama, action
Director: Ridley Scott
Writing: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Hiam Abbass, Ewen Bremner, Indira Varma

"You sleep well because you know that you're loved. I've never slept that well."  -- Ramses

After watching Exodus: Gods and Kings I had the song “Let My People Go” stuck in my head, and the urge to read up on Moses and his fantastical adventures. No matter whether you’re and atheist or belong to any kind of denomination, the Bible can be enjoyed as a work of literature containing lots of entertaining stories around supernatural events, moral themes and intriguing interpersonal relations – basically the stuff good movies are made of.

Yes, director Ridley Scott has all the right ingredients to turn the tale of the escape of the Israelites from the oppressive Pharaoh of Egypt’s land into a worthwhile blockbuster. I like how, in this film, he establishes Moses (Christian Bale) as a rationalist, a skilled warrior and a vital part of the royal household. Well-regarded by Pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro) and considered a brother by the heir apparent, Ramses (Joel Edgerton), Moses is shocked to find out about his Hebrew origins and forced into exile. There, after a head injury, he is haunted by visions of a young boy who claims to be a representation of God. The child imposes on him the task to free the Hebrew community in Egypt from the yoke of hard labour and unacceptable living conditions. Moses obeys promptly and embarks on a years-long mission.

The initial situation of the film is very promising. As a sucker for family drama, I was interested to see how the discord between Moses and Ramses might alter their brotherly friendship. As a fan of psychological storytelling, I was keen on finding out how Scott would explore the shift from Moses’ prudent and no-bullshit personality to a God-fearing and spiritual character. As a lover of epic visuals, I was expecting captivating scenes with a resonating power.

When it comes to the latter, I’m far from being disappointed. The movie shines when depicting battle scenes, the part when Moses guides the Hebrew community through the Red Sea or, my favourite sequence, when the ten plagues befall the Egyptian society. There is something magical about these moments, something supernatural, and yet Scott refrains from visual hyperbole. By clothing these scenes in a more realistic look than in an exaggerated expression of wizardly force, and by trying to root them in rational explanation, I find them to be even more thrilling. Additionally, the more realistic approach lends a more intriguing aspect to Moses’ character. I’m left to wonder whether he’s really a God-chosen messenger or rather an activist with severe brain damage and a bunch of good luck.

When it comes to an exciting plot structure or compelling character development, however, the film falls flat. Really flat. After the promising start, Exodus: Gods and Kings soon turns into a mere sequence of ‘then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened’. There is no satisfying explanation why Moses abandons his firm rationality for religious obedience, why he gives in to febrile visions. The dispute between him and Ramses stays on a superficial level.

It is a shame, really, because both Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton deliver good performances, but are severely restrained by a lacklustre script. Bale harbours the physicality and authority necessary to fill such a role. However, he doesn’t get the opportunity to dig deeper into the psychological mechanisms behind Moses’ actions. Edgerton brings a beautiful ambivalence to his character. Spoilt, cruel and vain, yet kind and caring to the people he loves. His performance bursts with undisclosed potential. Furthermore, talented actors and actresses in supporting roles, such as Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and Aaron Paul, are left with hardly anything to do.

The film definitely has its moments. It’s visually appealing and features an intriguing premise. However, I can’t help thinking how much potential has been wasted. Oh, if only Ridley Scott had spent some more effort on character development and balance, then maybe the story would not have felt so rushed, then maybe it would’ve had a more vigorous effect. Then maybe the underlying commentary on tyranny, religious activism and God’s supposed kindness would not have felt so lost.


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