Thursday, 1 May 2014

Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky)

The Western genre is generally seen as the most 'out of date' or 'wavering' genre - a consistently unfair viewpoint as each decade harbours enough examples of such a film often complete with progressive artistry. The western as a maintaining populist genre? No, but relevant none the less. The Biblical epic, however, certainly can't be professed as such things at all. Interesting is the room in this sub-genre for reinvention on such a sweeping, fantastical stage. Even more interesting or rather baffling (for positive reasons none the less) is that this $180 million film exists in an arguably increasingly secular society where forwarding technology and social mores are suffocating artistic freedom in cinema.

Awe inspiring in its beauty and bare brutality, Noah is a cinematic experience unlike any other. At times a marvel and at others confounding in its ambition, Darren Aronofsky's long gestating take on the Old Testament's parable of a man missioned by God to undertake his destroying of creation doesn't hang together as a whole but holds within it sequences of sheer astonishment. Some of the most beautiful sequences of film to contest any example before it.

Beginning with a thumping musical introduction that's almost comical with intimidation, the story of Man's fall is glided through with the first murder of Abel by brother Caine. More fleeting is the murder of a young Noah's father, also by Caine (Ray Winstone), that begins an intertwining battle between the fallen brother and an adult Noah (Russell Crowe). Given the short nature of the source material - the story of Noah is a mere four paragraphs - Aronofsky and his team have endless room for artistic licence in bringing the pre-flood Earth to life. Characterisation is at a minimum with the film feeling very much like an adaptation of a parable (Noah is simple described as "righteous" in scripture without further divulgence) and so the players of the film exist more as archetypal figures than fully drawn ones. This certainly adds to the often direct style of acting brought by both Crowe and Winstone, however when the film reaches for higher emotional notes others, such as the brilliant Jennifer Connelly as Noah's dedicated wife feel out of sorts with the film, of course not to their own detriment.

The world building and visuals are without doubt the strongest element of Noah, with this desolate landscape coming somewhere between Middle Earth and science fiction - think Game Of Thrones by way of David Lynch's Dune. Angels cast down by God are consumed by the Earth and live tortured existence as hobbling rock creatures, these fallen rock angels help defend Noah and his family in the Ark against the sinful army of Caine. This is one of the wild moves in the film that have to be seen to be believed.

There is a certain elliptical style to the film that doesn't lend itself to the gruelling, cumbersome challenge of building an Ark of such grandeur. Aronosky's central characters have nearly always been characterised by an achilles heel, an ambition that pushes past the realm of the physical that enters them in the arena of impossibly realised dreams. Here is the first time that through divine intervention (God is referred to as The Creator throughout) the impossible can and is achieved. It's in the psychological despair, or rather guilt, of mass genocide and of this chosen family's survival that the film's dramatic arc (sorry!) hangs on and it does so well with a paranoia bringing to mind early Polanski.

Noah's apocalyptic visions are fantastically realised as he drowns in his sleep surrounded by the souls of a thousand 'sinners'. But it's in the waking reality of these visions as they come to life before him that truly strike a chord; such as the harrowing screams of those clung to rock faces just outside of the floating vessel, Noah's family know they could help save some one but their father dismisses any such action. He knows what he's been destined to carry out and Crowe's wearing eyes project the torment.

Aronofsky's films have always had a weakness in how direct and undiluted they are, yet this dually has also marked his main strength as a filmmaker too; honing in on a theme and intensely gripping it without losing sight. This has made for a career of brash and rather blunt films made majestically operatic thanks to a long lasting collaboration with composer Clint Mansell. One must never forget that despite his subjective viewpoints and often surreal nature, Aronofky is a director of melodramas. Here, Aronofsky and his team have settled on an ecological message that sits well against a parable of destruction and mankind's inability to change. This clear righteous message may frustrate many viewers more than the fears of a religious story; Noah certainly has strong explorations of faith, especially during the film's strongest sequence aboard the arc where the family fall apart due to Noah's unwavering loyalty to what he believes his mission is. Overall it is undoubtably the work of a team of non-believers but also the work of someone clearly passionate about a timeless, boundless, story that has found its way into just about any culture on the face of the planet.

Noah is hindered by being bookended with its weakest scenes and the regularly visceral Aronofsky is obviously working in 'safer' territory than before given the source material and the biggest budget of his career. This results in a slightly awkward film that although never shying away from the inherent darkness of such a story, never quite feels like it can let loose despite the sheer levels of ambition and vision on display. It's a miracle this film exists.

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