(2014) Biblical Epic (20th Century Fox) Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass, Isaac Andrews, Ewen Bremner, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Dar Salim, Andrew Tarbet, Ken Bones, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott
Most of us are aware of the story of Moses, either through religious education or through repeated viewings of The Ten Commandments. Moses the Lawgiver remains one of the most iconic figures of the Old Testament, who along with Abraham is one of the foundations of the Judeo-Christian faith.
Moses (Bale) was born to Jewish slaves and when the newborn sons of Israel were slaughtered to prevent a prophecy that the deliverer had been born, his desperate mother floated him in a cradle of reeds down the Nile where he was picked up by the barren sister of Pharaoh Seti (Turturro) and raised in the royal household as a brother to Ramses (Edgerton). Ramses and Moses were as close as brothers and Seti felt that Moses would make a more effective ruler than his more impetuous biological son.
However despite the fact that Moses saved his life and has no ambition to rule Ramses has a healthy distrust of his childhood friend. When Moses discovers his true past from Nun (Kingsley), a Hebrew slave, his world is turned upside down. When Hegep (Mendelsohn), an Egyptian viceroy who has run afoul of Moses and seeks to curry favor with the new Pharaoh discovers the truth, Ramses is reluctant to kill his erstwhile kin. Instead, he exiles him to the desert, figuring that the Gods can deal with Moses.
The Gods deal with Moses by allowing him to traverse the desert to an oasis where he discovers the comely young shepherdess Zipporah (Valverde) who captivates the exiled Moses. The two marry and have a son. In the meantime, Moses is visited by God in the form of a young child who instructs Moses to raise an army and prepare to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. However, the Egyptians aren’t about to let the Israelites go so first there’s a matter of a few plagues – ten to be exact – before Moses is finally allowed to lead the slaves from bondage. However, they won’t get to the promised land without crossing the Red Sea and with a fired up army led by an enraged Ramses right on their tails.
Any cinematic version of the story of Exodus is going to inevitably have to deal with Cecil B. DeMille and his classic The Ten Commandments and anyone playing Moses is going to have to deal with Charlton Heston. For T10C the effects were impressive for their time, and the effects here are impressive for this time, bringing the plagues of frogs, flies, crocodiles and so on to vivid life. We can see the Egyptians trying to explain the plagues in anything but supernatural terms, much as we would do. But of course, they were also playing a game of “My Gods are better than Your God” with the Hebrews as well.
Heston was imperious, the very picture of an Old Testament prophet, intoning in a voice booming like thunder “Behold the Hand of the Lord” as he parts the Red Sea. Bale’s Moses is nothing like Heston; he bickers with the manifestation of God, feeling that he is a bit bloodthirsty for his taste and that his heavy-handed methods will be less likely to move Pharaoh’s heart. God essentially tells Moses he can do what he want because he’s God mofo! There has been a lot of controversy about this version of God who is not only a child but a petulant one.
Bale is a fine actor but this seems a bit out of his depth. In all fairness, there aren’t really any actors out there who can go all Old Testament on an audience; I honestly can’t think of any who would make a great Moses. That’s no knock on Bale; he can be as heroic as anyone but there is always an edge to him and there is one here as well. Moses here isn’t a Hebrew except by birth; he’s all about raising an army and taking on the Egyptian army – after all, with God’s help what army could stand against them, but God seems to prefer the art of gentle persuasion – by using a hammer on innocents. Moses has a problem with that and frankly, so do I and I appreciate Scott bringing it up because it is a question worth asking.
Some have complained that Scott, an agnostic, has diverged a fair amount from the source material but I think that as Scott himself has stated, his lack of Judeo-Christian faith gives him a certain amount of perspective that directors like DeMille who was known for being devout lack. However, Scott has justifiably been raked over the coals for casting white actors in parts that are essentially Middle Eastern, mostly casting what Middle Eastern actors he does have as slaves and soldiers. Scott raises the point that no studio is going to finance a $200 million film without name actors in the lead roles and that’s true enough. Which of course makes me wonder if that’s a statement on the racial bias of the movie-going public as much as it is the studios. Fill in your own answers here.
I liked Edgerton’s performance as Ramses although he has been getting a bit of flack for his work for the most part. Yes, he uses a bit too much eyeliner and he looks like some sort of giant Gerber’s baby with his head shaved but he captures Ramses as a man raised to believe he was a living God but full of insecurities, particularly because his brother was so much better than him in just about everything.
So this is one of those event movies that really relies on spectacle and there’s just enough here to make it worth seeing on the big screen if you can, but this isn’t great moviemaking or a great movie. Scott has done far better work, some of it recently. That doesn’t mean this doesn’t have merit and in this case, just enough for a guarded recommendation.
REASONS TO GO: Edgerton makes a decent Ramses. The effects are spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and strays far from the Biblical source material. Insensitive to the religious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, particularly on the battlefield. There are also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Mendelsohn previously worked with Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises and Joel Edgerton in Animal Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Noah
FINAL RATING: 6/10