Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kinsley, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn
Visually gifted but narratively shaky filmmaker Ridley Scott has always had an affinity for historical epics. The big canvas suits his strengths, and the tendency for complex issues to get boiled down into simple good vs. evil narratives tends to compensate for his shortcomings. Well, they don’t come much bigger or more black and white than the Old Testament, the source for this latest retelling of the mytho-historical exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.
Raised in the royal household of Egypt by Pharoah Set I (John Turturro, and that’s pretty funny), Moses (Christian Bale) doesn’t suspect that he hails from the enslaved Hebrew people until a chance encounter with Hebrew elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) reveals the truth. Exiled by his adopted brother, Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) he builds a new life for himself beyond the Red Sea, until a mystical vision sends him on a mission to make Ramesses let his people go. Violence, plagues and a lot of careful hedging of bets around the subject of miracles ensues.
Exodus feels like half a movie. It’s stultifyingly long, yet still feels rushed, as though much of the thematic and theological material central to the story was hewn away, leaving only a skeleton of a story. It’s also far too coy about the religious – or mythological, if you prefer – underpinnings of the story it’s trying to tell; Scott and his writers (four are credited) are careful to give just about everything a plausible explanation, whether it be Moses’ musical experiences being the result of head trauma, or the biblical plagues logically progressing one from the other (only the 10th is presented as inexplicable). In the attempt to be ambiguous, the film instead comes across as wishy-washy. A bit of unequivocal fire and brimstone would have worked wonders.
The performances are solid, by and large. Bale brings gravitas to the role ensuring that there is a solid core to a character we see move from badass general to simple shepherd to guerrilla insurgent to spiritual leader. In contrast, Edgerton chooses to position Ramesses as an ineffectual and truculent fop, raised in luxury and privilege and utterly unsuited to leadership. It’s a performance that skirts the edge of pantomime, only occasionally crossing into complete farce (fellow Aussie Ben Mendelsohn seems to be reading the same playbook here). Everyone else does good work, although Aaron Paul, who crops up as Joshua, looks far too modern for the milieu he’s been dropped into.
The problem is that this version of the Exodus story doesn’t appear to be about anything. It’s a damn shame, as it’s such a rich cultural vein just waiting be tapped, and a filmmaker who actually wanted to grapple with the meaty material could have given us something that does more than just look good (it’s a Ridley Scott joint, after all – you better believe Exodus looks amazing). Exodus: Gods and Kings could have been about one man’s spiritual awakening, the birth of monotheism, the self-determination of a people and the price they’re willing to pay. Instead, it’s about two and a half hours long, which is a little too much time to invest in a story that goes nowhere.