With Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content. 138 minutes.
In the Jewish study of Biblical texts, there is a concept known as “Midrash.” These are legends and folktales where the rabbis of old tried to fill in the blanks of the stories that are tersely told. In NOAH, writer/director Darren Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel engage in what might be called cinematic Midrash. They follow the Biblical account, but draw from other sources and engage in some creativity of their own.
You already know the basic story: Noah (Russell Crowe) is told by God that the world has fallen into evil ways and that a great flood will wipe it clean. In the meantime he is to build an ark which will contain him and his family as well as two of each kind of creature. At the end–and if this is a spoiler you probably are not the audience for this film–they emerge and repopulate the world.
Some of the things that happen in the film may surprise you if you are unfamiliar with the text. There are these giant rock creatures that help Noah build the ark and protect him from his evil neighbors, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). These rock creatures are an interpretation of the “Nephilim,” who appear in a single verse (Gen. 6:4) and are purportedly connected to so-called “fallen angels.” Tubal-cain has a much bigger role here than in the Bible, where he too appears briefly (Gen. 4:22).
You may also be surprised to see Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and the miraculous blessing he confers late in the film seems to be an invention on Aronofsky’s part. Yet if you do the math as the rabbis of the Talmud did in examining all the “begats,” Methuselah–who is reported to have lived 969 years–died at the start of the flood. One last bit that may surprise if you don’t know the story is Noah getting drunk and passing out naked in the post-flood world. In fact that story is right out of the Bible (Gen. 9:20-27). What Aronofsky does here is take Noah’s curse of one of his sons and created a backstory of their relationship which fleshes out the characters.
So if the movie is in the tradition of exploring the Biblical text, is it any good? It turns out to be surprisingly good. There are things that work (the start of the flood) and things that don’t (those silly rock creatures), but the performances are solid. Crowe plays Noah not as a saint but as a man with a burden. By not providing God’s voice but only the vision Noah has, the film has Noah struggling with the meaning of his task and getting it wrong. This allows Jennifer Connolly–who also played Crowe’s wife in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001)–a dramatic moment where she asserts herself against Noah’s mistaken intent. Also an asset to the film is Emma Watson as Shem’s wife, a character only implied in the text.
Whether taken literally or metaphorically, “Noah” makes you think about the issue of evil in the world. The depictions of how Noah’s neighbors live raise the question whether they could have or should have been spared. (Although having one of them as a stowaway on the ark in order to create an action scene late in the film was not the most inspired idea.) The argument between Noah and his wife is really the moral center of the film: is humanity a blessing or a curse to the world?
By leaving us with such issues to ponder, “Noah” transcends the genre of mere “Biblical epic.” It becomes part of the very discussion.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.