Tagged: Emily Watson

Review – Noah (2014)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth, Anthony Hopkins

NoahDarren Aronofsky is one of contemporary filmmaking’s true auteurs. A unique and interesting cinematic voice, when it was announced that he would be following up his surprise hit Black Swan with an adaptation of the story of Noah’s ark, a story which had apparently fascinated him since his childhood, there was little doubt we were going to get a film which was unlike any depiction of this story we had seen before.

Noah, is an audacious and bold piece of filmmaking, and while uneven it is more ambitious than most films which draw on Biblical stories, which tend to play it safe. The film presents the story of Noah not as a Biblical history, but rather as a mythology – a pre-historic great flood mythology is part not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition but many of the world’s religions. As such, the film takes on an aesthetic that is more akin to the fantasy genre than the historical epic. This is particularly evident in the depiction of ‘the Watchers,’ Aronofsky’s take on the Nephilim (fallen angels mentioned briefly in the Genesis text), which are shown as giant, Ray Harryhausen-esque rock creatures.

As is to be expected, the film has been attacked by some conservative Christian circles for its lack of Biblical accuracy (as is also to be expected, many of its most vocal opponents will openly admit they have not seen the film that has so offended them). They do have a point. At times Noah bears little resemblance to the Genesis account. Aronofsky has himself described the film as “the least biblical biblical film ever made.” But it begs the question whether in this situation biblical accuracy matters? Aronofsky’s film is not at all attempting to make a theological statement. It has no evangelistic agenda. It is neither seeking to persuade nor dissuade its viewers of the truthfulness of the story or the authenticity of the Genesis account.

If Noah is evangelistic about anything, it is environmentalism rather than theology. Aronofsky engages with the story of Noah not as a biblical story, but as one of Western society’s foundational narratives. He employs the standard practice of refocusing a well-known story in order to shine a light on a particular relevant issue. Aronofsky’s Noah thus becomes a film about stewardship and dominion. Noah and his family, descendents of Seth, believe humanity is tasked by the Creator – Noah always uses the moniker “the Creator” instead of God, the Lord, etc – to be stewards of creation and they aim to tread lightly on the Earth. “We take only what we need, what we can use,” Noah instructs his children as they pick food from the ground. The rest of humanity, descendents of Cain, whose murder of his brother Abel is depicted by the film as the defining moment of humanity’s corruption, believe the Creator has given them dominion over the Earth and it is theirs to plunder and use. In this film it is as much the way that humanity has treated the creation as it is the way they have treated each other that prompts the Creator to wipe the slate clean and start again.

While not a typical epic, Noah is still an impressive visual experience. The film carefully combines computer generated material with some impressive sets. The ark itself is an imposing structure – a monolithic, wooden box nothing like the traditional boat shape usually represented. All of the film’s animals are computer generated, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Aronofsky also employs some interesting and arresting aesthetic devices. Noah recounts the creation story to his family, and his words are accompanied with a flickering time-lapse imagery, which is very effective.

Russell Crowe is strong in the title role as a character who is supposed to challenge us. On the one hand, we see him as an honourable figure, one who protects his family in a hostile world and seeks to live a righteous life. He sees a vision from the Creator and he is obedient. Yet as we sit inside the ark with Noah and his family and hear the cries for mercy from those on the outside as the floodwaters rise, we wrestle with Noah’s complicity in this genocide. Then when he comes to doubt the vision he has seen, and question whether it is indeed his family’s responsibility to repopulate the Earth or whether they are simply to shepherd the animals through this period and then themselves die off, he becomes quite a threatening figure to his wife and children, and Crowe is able to convincingly move from powerful guardian to threat. It is a controversial but very interesting characterisation.

Noah has its problems, it is a bit uneven and at times its environmental agenda is overplayed, but you will struggle to find a bolder, more ambitious and thought provoking blockbuster.

Rating: ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – The Book Thief (2013)

Director: Brian Percival

Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schentzer

Book ThiefThe Book Thief is a World War II film with a difference. It is a home front story set in Germany, telling the stories of the ordinary German people who had their country taken hostage by the Nazis.

The film centres on nine-year-old Leisel Meminger. With an absent father, a mother who has been sent to a concentration camp for alleged Communists, and a deceased brother, she is adopted by Hans and Rosa Huberman. Teased at school for being illiterate, she starts learning to read with the help of Hans. At a Nazi book burning rally she steals away with a copy of HG Wells’ The Invisible Man and soon develops a passion for reading.

In theory The Book Thief is a story of young people caught up in the horrors of Nazi Germany, but due to its point of view those horrors are largely absent from the film – this is a very PG treatment of World War II. That we see the world from the eyes of this young girl means that the scope of the film rarely extends beyond her immediate experience. So for the majority of the film there is no direct experience of combat, and while the Hubermans harbour a young Jewish man, it is never made explicit what they are hiding him from. As such, the film is very dependent on required knowledge to understand the stakes. Interestingly though, the most traumatic scenes in the film are those in which we see men and boys being conscripted into the Nazi army. For this young girl, largely unaware of the happenings of war, the most immediate effect of the war is watching friends and neighbours being taken away to serve.

Based on the bestselling novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is an example of why complete reverence to the source material should not always be the ultimate goal of a film adaptation. Like Zusak’s novel, the film is narrated by death, voiced by British character actor Roger Allam. While by all reports this device works in the novel, on screen it feels horribly gimmicky. Naff gimmick aside, it also simply isn’t good narration. The narrator has no consistent, meaningful presence. Instead the narration tops and tails the film, only appearing at a few moments throughout for unnecessary exposition. Simply removing the narration would have immediately improved the film, even if it meant being slightly less true to Zusak’s novel. Unfortunately though, the films narration is just one element of a poorly written, sappy and cliché ridden screenplay, ironic given the film is all about the power and importance of the written word – “words are life” Max declares.

The film also takes an off-puttingly inconsistent approach to language. The film is set in Germany with all characters speaking English with German accents. This is a common device that allows an English speaking audience to understand what is being said while still maintaining the illusion that everything is happening in German. Except in The Book Thief there are also some moments where people speak in German with subtitles. The written word is such a prominent part of this narrative and similarly there is a mixture of words written in English and words written in German. This is not a major issue, but to those who notice it is an odd and unnecessary inconsistency.

Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson put in lovely performances as Liesel’s adoptive parents, and young Sophie Nélisse with her large expressive eyes is quite good as the film’s central character, but they alone cannot compensate for this film’s problems. The Book Thief may resonate with a younger audience but more mature viewers may become frustrated with its willingness to resort to cliché and its simplistic approach to a moment in history which, even given the films point of view, requires a more complex treatment.

Rating – ★☆

Review by Duncan McLean