Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 2014)

Ridley Scott as director. An all-star cast including Sir Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Christian Bale. A modern retelling of The Book of Exodus. An estimated $140m budget. Epic battles. The scale and subject matter of Exodus: Gods and Kings means it’s destined for success. But is it any good?

Before I start, it’s important to note that my experience of the film has been informed by the fact I’m an atheist. Not only that, to my shame I actually went into the film without a clear memory of the story of Moses. I’m probably in the minority on that. I mean, I remember the stuff with the frogs and the locusts and the parting of the sea and the burning tree. It’s all in there, for sure. I just couldn’t remember why any of those things happened or what order any of it came in. I was approaching it with an air of naivety that was perhaps self-inflicted, both in my youth and subsequent life choices, but also in a lack of effort to remind myself of the story before I went in to the première.

To cut a long story short, I can’t tell you whether or not this is a faithful representation of the Book of Exodus. What I can tell you is that it’s a pretty spectacular experience. The story itself is a gripping tale of two brothers battling for power, one of whom is struggling to understand his own place in a world ravaged by slavery, elitism, poverty and racism, a world where he has grown up believing he is something he is not.

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It is the kind of tale that has been brought to the big screen many times before, though rarely on such a grand scale. Scott probably had his work cut out to keep all parties happy. He has stated that he would have had difficulty getting financial backing for the film had he not cast a white A-list actor in the lead role, though this has caused dissatisfaction amongst those that want something more accurate to the story (or is that disgust…?). Clearly, deviating from the Book of Exodus would have been a terrible move too, so most of the time he plays it safe. The story doesn’t need to be embellished to keep it interesting, so there’s no cause for panic there.

One of the things that impressed me most – and it’s something that has caused a lot of debate after the previews – was the scientific explanations of the various aspects of the story. In particular, the parting of the Red Sea is apportioned to a tsunami. Actually this is a pretty robust explanation and I can see how this would work, though I do wonder how the 400000 Israelites about 10ft above the wave on a small rock survived en masse whilst the Egyptians were wiped out as they were at sea level (sorry, spoiler alert). I also question how Ramses managed to be the lone-survivor when he was the worst positioned of everyone. That said, the fact an explanation is offered, along with the hints at Moses having hallucinations rather than seeing a real-life messenger, anchors the story in the real world and makes it far more believable. Whether a devout Christian would see it the same way is another question.

On a side note, anyone attempting to boycott a film before it has been released will probably never enjoy anything in their life. So much media attention has focused on the casting of the leads, with accusations of “white-washing” being the main issue. I was on review lockdown ahead of watching the film so I wasn’t aware of it ahead of the screening, but it wasn’t something that jumped out at me whilst I was watching. Maybe I need to see it again to see if I missed it, but it seems disrespectful to suggest that Scott would choose such a late point in his career to intentionally start showing racial bias in his films. Also, if the popular imagery of Christianity is going to be criticised then a better starting point might be the generally accepted depiction of Jesus as a tall, white man with long brown hair, which I think humanity will eventually agree probably isn’t what he would have looked like at all.

Despite some pre-film trepidation, I was pleasantly surprised that I could enjoy a Biblical film so much. The way Scott has constructed this retelling makes it accessible to all cinema goers. Hopefully it isn’t at the expense of the Christian market.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is released in the UK on 26th December 2014.

American Hustle (David O’Russell, 2014)

Director David O’Russell has had a sudden upsurge in fortune. With his last film – Silver Linings Playbook – he finally realised the promise hinted at with his earlier attempts at cinematic quirky humour. It was both critically lauded and a commercial triumph. It was a must-see film. If you hadn’t seen it you wanted to, and once you’d seen it once you probably wanted to see it again. O’Russell’s stock had never been higher.

It was important, then, that he chose his next film wisely. I’d say American Hustle was exactly that – a wise choice. It’s a film set in 1970s New Jersey, and this allowed a lot of fun to be had with costuming and recreating an authentic world in which the characters can play. To bring the characters to life, he enlisted three key actors from last year’s triumph: Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Added to this he also brought Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. That is a formidable lead cast if ever you saw one.

The music is spot on. Mixing a superb score from Danny Elfman with some choice cuts from the era (think Elton John, America, Chicago), it all blends together to further enhance the authentic experience.

Yet, after 138 minutes of buying in to the story, I left the cinema feeling a little short changed. There’s enough humour to keep us smiling, some great playoffs between Adams and Lawrence who are at each other’s throats throughout, and the mild twists and turns in the plot are entertaining if not thrilling. I admired the solid performances from the all-star cast, none of whom underperformed but at the same time didn’t shine. The film had the feeling of playing it safe, and I thought there could have been more to it. The final payoff was predictable and in turn disappointing.

The main problem for me was that none of the characters were likeable. Adams and Bale are both untrustworthy con artists, Cooper is an FBI career man who wants a quick rise to the top, Lawrence is a degenerate waster who’s slow on the uptake, De Niro is a mafia overlord. Renner’s Mayor Polito is the only one I felt sympathy for, getting mixed up with the wrong people for the right reasons, but he’s not really a central character. I didn’t have anyone I felt the urge to back and for me that’s a flaw in the scriptwriting. I understand that the aim of the film may have been to portray the fact that nobody in this circle is likeable, but it just wasn’t carried off successfully. With so much time to develop the characters and such an amazing array of talent on offer, it could have been so much more.

American Hustle is out now in UK cinemas.