We file into the movie ark not knowing what journey, holy or unholy, Noah will take us on. A first caption appears on screen, possibly a warning: “In the beginning there was nothing … ” (What happened to The Word?) Then, following the first celestial teardrop on parched land, we are sploshed, buffeted, harrowed, haled and hauled for two-and-a-half hours – action-packed, passion-packed, thrilling hours – in Darren Aronofsky’s heroically bloody-minded version of the Biblical flood.
The film has been attacked for being un-Biblical. In the US, God-fearing networks have had daily seizures of indignation. No wives in the movie for Noah’s sons! A bunch of eye-boggling rock monsters! (Possibly, possibly not, they are related to the Good Book’s Nephilim.) And at the climax a flat-out un-Biblical disagreement between Noah and God over whether humanity should survive. For extra conscience-testing of the ark-building hero and extra patience-testing of Christian audiences, Cain, no less, played by Ray Winstone in his best snarly, voluptuous cockney, smuggles himself aboard to up the odds on a doomsday denouement.
Never fear. All is good, even stupendous. Russell Crowe is in his element, or the elements are in him and all around. Earth and air; sudden fires of rage, conflict, burning conviction; new-made seas tossing him about – with his missus (Jennifer Connelly), his sons and an adopted waif (Emma Watson) who will be crucial to the tale – as if the flood’s swirls embody the characters’ own torments. (Ruskin once said painting the sea was “like painting the soul”.) Crowe does what he does best. Look broodingly tormented; rasp tortured wisdoms; get greyer, more grizzled, more tremendous as the day wears on.
Why is Aronofsky’s film wonderful? Because his revisions and embellishments add heat – Homeric, at times hubristic – to a story made tepid by centuries of Sunday Schooling. His “Creator” (as God is called throughout) and his captain conspire in the world’s near-death experience. And when the roar of water and battle dins of human emotion don’t fill the screen and soundtrack – Connelly is superb as the life-urging, desperate mate to a helmsman bent on watery holocaust – Aronofsky thrills us with talismanic montages. These are bright and precise as jewels. One is a three-image sequence thrice-or-more repeated: snake, apple, up-raised rock of Cain, the triptych for the world’s undoing. Another is a virtuoso sped-up story of evolution, “recalled” by Noah, from big bang to origin of human species. (More wails from the Bible Belt.)
By the close Noah is not just a story brought back to life, with every grandeur re-conferred, but a story’s characters too. We are aboard, we feel, with a real Noah, his real wife, even (however apocryphal) a real Cain. We jostle and talk with them as if on that ship of fools and sages we know as everyday human life. Crowe even has a humanising drunk scene (which is in the Bible). God bless a Jewish atheist – as Aronofsky professes himself – for making us look at an old religious story as if it is new, universal and mythic. And for firing up debates about good, evil, existence and humanity, which shouldn’t need a movie’s provocation to be part of our daily conversation.