Exodus: Gods and Kings

December 20, 2014
Christian Bale in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' (2014)
Christian Bale in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' (2014)

Exodus: Gods and Kings was always going to be a spectacle on a grand scale but the challenge for director, Ridley Scott, was how to deal with the larger-than-life characters of Moses, the Pharaoh Ramses, and err.. God. He has made some bold choices, not the least being the casting of 11-year-old Isaac Andrews as the Supreme Being. It’s one of those crazy ideas that works better than one might have imagined. It certainly offers more options than a burning bush.

At two-and-a-half hours Exodus gives the impression that a lot of scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Actors such as Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya, and Aaron Paul as Moses’s brother, Joshua, are given a mere handful of lines in roles that could have been played by nobodies. One suspects entire plot-lines have disappeared in the effort to keep the movie within commercially viable limits.

There’s so much that is old-fashioned and inherently ridiculous in this return to the days of ye olde Hollywood epic that the viewer has to struggle to suspend disbelief. One cannot reflect too long on a multinational cast speaking with a gaggle of accents.

To signify a break with Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster of 1956, Scott and his four scriptwriters have made some surprising decisions.

The beginning of the film has neither basket nor bullrushes. Instead, Scott spins a tale of two ‘brothers’, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton). We meet Moses as a general in the Egyptian army. He and Ramses are about to lead a pre-emptive strike on the Hittites, but there is a troubling prophecy that one will save the life of the other and go on to be a ruler. In the first set piece of the movie Moses performs this rescue, leaving Ramses stricken with paranoia.

The Pharaoh, Seti (an improbable John Turturro), treats Moses as a second son. In fact he rather prefers Moses, sensing a strain of instability and weirdness in his offspring. Joel Edgerton, with shaven head and lots of eye make-up, makes a good fist of unstable and weird. At times Ramses seems to love Moses, at others he plays the textbook tyrant. He is less like Yul Brynner in DeMille’s movie, than one of the cruel, fragile Roman emperors of I, Claudius.

When we find Ramses caressing cobras and extracting their venom, we realise there’s a dark and dangerous side to his personality. Soon Seti goes to his tomb, perhaps with a little poison in his veins, and Ramses ascends the throne. His first project is to start building massive monuments to himself, his second is to send Moses into exile, after his Hebrew origins have been exposed.

Then begins the arduous task – for Moses and the audience – of an extended trek through the wilderness. Finally he arrives at a nondescript village, weds the chief’s daughter, Zipporah (María Valverde), and settles down for a new career looking after the sheep and goats. Yet this attempt at the quiet life is no more successful than Michael Corleone’s efforts to opt out of the family business. Obeying God’s dictates he returns to Egypt and begins the task of turning the Hebrews into a crack fighting outfit.

When Moses’ first terrorist acts are met with terrible retribution, he quarrels with God, who decides it’s time to unfurl the ten plagues of Egypt. This is obviously the most eagerly anticipated part of the film and Scott does not disappoint. There were ten plagues in the Old Testament: water turned to blood, frogs, lice, flies, a disease that killed the livestock, boils, hailstorms, locusts, a darkness that fell upon the land, and the death of the firstborn.

I can’t remember any lice, but Scott gives us a plague of voracious crocodiles for good measure. These sequences are triumphs of CGI, almost worth the price of admission in their own right.

The Ten Commandments, which provided DeMille’s title, are little more than a footnote in this movie. Towards the end of proceedings the 11-year-old God gets Moses to clamber up a mountain for a little dictation. On the way up Moses casts a glance behind him and sees the Israelites about to party round the Golden Calf. The sight warrants no more than a cursory grunt.

Moses assures God the only reason he is scratching the Commandments onto the tablets is that he is in fundamental agreement with them. It’s the final testy exchange in a relationship in which God and his disciple have often been at odds.

It may be that Moses doesn’t like being bossed around by a little brat, but the main problem is the highly conflicted nature of our hero’s personality. If you thought Batman was the neurotic, brooding type, Bale has told reporters that he saw Moses as “barbaric” and “schizophrenic”.

A steady undercurrent of madness and crankiness runs through Bale’s performance, characterised by cold stares, unruly facial hair, sunburn and a lavish coating of dirt.

He is the most reluctant of Hebrew heroes, at first not wanting to believe that he is Jewish. His conversion occurs partly through a knock on the head when caught in an avalanche.

While friends watch Moses’ testy conversations with God from a distance it seems as if he is talking to himself. Bale’s character may be “barbaric”, but the brutality of God’s methods gives him the chills. Instead of the faith of a fanatic he is possessed by depression and uncertainty.

Scott surprises by underplaying the story’s major showpiece, namely the parting of the Red Sea. There is no theatrical gesture, only the slow diminution of the waters until the Israelites can make their crossing. He makes up for this show of restraint when the sea comes rushing back in full force. At such moments one can forgive the truncated plot lines, the lapses in continuity and dialogue. Like the Old Testament God, Ridley Scott seems happiest when he is blowing everything away.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine & Steven Zaillian
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, María Valverde, Ben Mendelsohn, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver
UK/USA/Spain, rated M, 150 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th December, 2014.

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