Sprawling epics are as much a part of Hollywood’s DNA as the Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and director Ridley Scott’s perhaps the closest we now have to a modern day Cecil B DeMille. Scott cements that status with Exodus: Gods And Kings, his elemental rendering of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt.
Christian Bale plays a macho Moses who’s nevertheless markedly different from Charlton Heston’s incarnation in 1956’s The Ten Commandments. Raised as Egyptian royalty under the wing of King Seti (John Turturro), Moses fights alongside his adopted brother Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) in battle, and proves to be both a shrewd tactician and master swordsman. When it emerges that Moses is a Hebrew, however, he’s cast out of Egypt and left for dead. Journeying across the desert, he’s given a mission from God: return to Memphis and free the Israelites from slavery.
Even having directed several other sprawling films – 1492: The Conquest Of Paradise, Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven – Scott still appears to relish the shooting of countless extras, huge sets and widescreen vistas. Exodus looks as sumptuous and gilded as anything Scott’s made, and some of his sequences are the most startling I’ve seen in a cinema this year: you may have heard of the ten plagues of Egypt, but they’re staged with a grisly attention to detail.
After an uneven couple of movies – the disappointing Prometheus and the meandering but endearingly bonkers The Counselor – Scott seems to have rediscovered his footing with Exodus, particularly when it comes to his star-studded cast. Bale is superb as Moses, and his intensity really comes into its own later in the story, as the treks across the desert and the inscrutable plans of a quite scary Old Testament God take their toll.
Joel Edgerton plays a brooding, self-absorbed and decadent Ramses, who’d rather pose topless with his pet king cobras than help manage his father’s sprawling empire. It’s a somewhat camp performance at first glance, but becomes more interesting – and sympathetic – as God’s wrath tears Egypt apart.
In fact, in a story that spares little time for building intimate relationships, it’s the turbulence between Moses and Ramses that carries the most resonance. Moses’ marriage is quickly sketched in to give Moses a bit of light as well as shade, but it’s the triangle between Moses, Ramses and God that Scott seems most interested in. Even when Moses is cast out of Egypt, there remains a flicker of affection between he and Ramses. In the end, Moses has to choose who he’s going to remain loyal to: the tyrannical Pharaoh or the supernatural being who appears to him in the middle of a raging storm.
The most effective moments in Prometheus were the wordless, otherworldly ones, such as the Engineer sacrificing himself at the top of a waterfall in its prologue. Scott shows the same flair here: where Old Hollywood might have depicted Jehovah booming out his orders from a roiling cloud, the God of Exodus appears in a set of de-saturated, eerily quiet scenes where we’re never quite sure whether what we’re seeing is Moses’ hallucination or a genuine visit from the Almighty. God remains an unknowable – even dislikeable – force throughout Exodus.
Like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Exodus updates certain events for the 21st century. But what distinguishes Exodus is Scott’s insistence on downplaying the famous moments from The Bible rather than writing them large: the carving of the ten commandments doesn’t unfold with a self-important fanfare, but a highly effective whisper.
Exodus doesn’t get everything right. Screenwriter Stven Zaillian’s dialogue is functional rather than memorable (“This is your famous uncle Moses,” an Israelite chirpily says), and it’s strange to see such acting heavyweights as Sigourney Weaver and Sir Ben Kingsley frittered away in lightweight roles. Ben Mendelsohn is one notable exception: as a flamboyant and conniving viceroy, his blue eyes shimmer from behind thick makeup, and he makes every second Scott gives him count.
More than most films of 2014, Exodus could easily enjoyed with the dialogue switched off altogether. Exodus is at its most eloquent when its sonorous music soars, carrying the camera with it; as seas roil and plagues ravage Memphis, there’s the palpable sense that Scott’s creative synapses are going off at full bore.
Exodus: Gods And Kings is out in UK cinemas on the 26th December.
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