Along with the epic scope and apocalyptic imagery you might expect from a cinematic telling of the biblical story of the Ark and the Flood, director Darren Aronofsky brings tremendous humanity and depth of emotion to his interpretation of the story in Noah. It’s that commitment to depicting human feeling that proves to be the most compelling aspect of Aronofsky’s work here, as brought to life by a dream cast of performers led by Russell Crowe, who delivers his most engrossing performance in years.
Ten generations after the Temptation of Adam and the fall from Eden, the descendants of Cain have spread wickedness throughout the world, their ruinous cities and failed industry leaving the earth barren and devoid of life. Living their lives as far away from cities as possible, Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their children, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo Carroll) scrape out a meager existence, taking from the wasted ground only what they can use, with Noah trying to convey to the boys the importance of conserving the natural world.
A dream in which he sees death by flood on a massive scale convinces Noah to pack up his family and seek the counsel of his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), on how the cataclysm might be stopped. He learns that it cannot, but it can be survived, and at the foot of the green mountain that Methuselah calls home, Noah and his family, with the help of the Watchers — angels cast down by the Creator for the sin of helping Man after Cain committed his grievous crime — begin the task he believes his Creator has set him to accomplish: to build the Ark that will soon preserve the world’s remaining life.
Years later, as the massive Ark nears completion and all manner of birds and beasts have begun migrating to its location, Noah faces new challenges, both from the outside world and within his own family, as the world’s doom and all its implications become clear, and the rains begin to fall. He’s also faced with the understanding that he, as the Ark’s caretaker, is also the arbiter what he believes to be his Creator’s justice to the wicked people of the earth, of which he and his family are a part. Before those rains cease and the flood waters recede, Noah’s faith in his Creator and resolve to carry out his task, plus his own family’s faith in him, will be tested by far more than just the deluge, as justice, by Noah’s reckoning of it, must be served, and the wicked punished, no matter to whose family they may belong.
If you know how the story is told in the Bible, then you can already tell that Aronofsky, who co-wrote the script along with longtime collaborator Ari Handel, has taken certain liberties with the story, and this isn’t exactly how it goes in the Book of Genesis. Perhaps the best way to approach what he’s done is to regard the story as a work of literature, and Aronofsky’s film as an interpretation of that work. Bottom line: if you’re looking for a film that adheres strictly to Abrahamic scripture, you might be better served by returning to the History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries, or Son of God, which took the segments of that series focused on the life of Jesus and re-edited them for feature-length presentation in theaters. The producers of that series set out to present the stories in the Bible in film as literally as possible, and that’s simply not what Aronofsky set out to do with his film.
Rather, what you get with Aronofsky’s vision is a very intimate and immediate portrait of what can only be described as the ultimate test of faith. At all times, even during the breathtaking sequences showing the great deluge or the Ark filling with animals of every sort, the focus is always on the emotions of the people faced with both miracles beyond belief and potentially the end of all things.
At the heart of it all is a powerhouse performance delivered by Russell Crowe. The somewhat minimalist script pushes him to convey much of Noah’s feelings towards his family and his task with his eyes and expressions, which plays to his strength as a performer for whom intensity and gravity are as natural as breathing and speaking. As a character in the film, Noah goes through two distinct physical transformations that coincide with different time frames in the story; he is at different times gentle, nurturing, severe, unyielding, broken, and, at last, at peace, and all times Crowe makes the transformations and the actions that distinguish them authentic and impactful. It’s a performance that should be remembered for the conviction with which Crowe delivers every look and gesture.
Crowe’s performance isn’t the only powerhouse one here, however. As she did once before acting opposite Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Jennifer Connelly holds her own on screen and gives an equally memorable turn as Noah’s wife, confidante, and partner. Naameh is a constant here; while Noah’s disposition and countenance change as his burden weighs heavier and its pains harden him, Naameh remains compassionate and devoted in the face of each new crisis. Connelly’s is the quieter of the two lead performances, but it’s no less arresting or powerful. Ray Winstone (Hugo, The Departed) , too, delivers a surprisingly nuanced and textured turn as Tubal-cain, ostensibly the villain of this piece, but in reality simply a representation of Man’s hubris, his sense of entitlement, and the arrogant and all-too-common view in our world that all that’s put upon the earth is here to serve mankind, rather than man serving the earth as its caretaker.
As for the visual effects utilized to bring the many wondrous and terrifying scenes within this story to life, they certainly do not disappoint. The Ark itself is a true masterwork of production design, and just as visually arresting are the Iceland locations chosen to highlight the desolate reality of human existence in this time and place. But again, these only serve to provide a compelling backdrop for the human drama unfolding with the characters in the midst of the disaster and its aftermath, unlike so many other inferior disaster films where the humans are merely present to react to the effects that are the real stars of the production. Watch for Noah to be a contender in next year’s Oscars in the majority of the technical categories, but it might be the rare film that also manages to compete for the major honors of the night, as well.
All in all, the film is an exemplary work of dramatic cinema, and hopefully the quality of the work will be recognized by a wide audience sure to be made up of people going in with varying agendas and preconceived notions. Some will be there just to see the eye-popping special effects of a big-budget disaster film. Others will be prepared to critique the film’s departures from scripture. Still others will be there because of the prestigious cast and the quality of Aronofsky’s previous work. Regardless of their reason for being there, just about everyone should come away from this film at least talking about it. If there’s one thing certain, it’s a film that you simply cannot just walk away from without any feeling at all.
It’s just too well done.
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, and Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Running Time: 138 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.
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