The day after New Year, we headed to Exodus: Gods and Kings (or, as I prefer to think of it, Exodus: Moses and Aaron Paul). I’m a huge fan of sword and sandal movies in general, but especially religious epics. Something magical just seems to happen when Hollywood meets the Bible, and everything gets swept into mad, pretentious hyperbole. But, I should say at the outset, both the achievement and the disappointment of Exodus is that, while no one will accuse director Ridley Scott of understatement, it’s actually surprisingly subdued.
So, while I came away from it with some grudging admiration, I’ll admit I also felt shortchanged. Good taste isn’t what I want in this kind of movie, and I was hoping for something grandly ludicrous along the lines of Alexander, with its unforgettable teaming of Colin Farrell (sporting a frosted blonde, Rona Barrett mullet) and Angelina Jolie (equal parts dazzling temptress and nagging Jewish mother).
But that’s not Scott’s style – he takes Exodus seriously, though not so seriously that he’s above making sure everything is on an Epic Scale. In fact, let me correct myself – it’s tasteful and subdued but also falls into the standard Hollywood folly with Bible movies – that it’s a good idea to treat this material realistically and literally. That’s a recipe for kitsch.
For the most part, Scott avoids kitsch because he doesn’t fall into the other Hollywood trap – which is to wrap the movie in a veil of piety. Instead, he goes for something more muscular – most of the actors (including Christian Bale as Moses) keep the sense of visionary mysticism to a minimum. Instead, they focus on behaving as real people might in the grip of life-changing events.
Is this right approach? I’m not sure. On one hand, I think Exodus is a pretty good movie, which isn’t at all what I expected. But on the other, I have the feeling it will disappoint audiences on both sides of the fence. Those who want their biblical movies cloaked in reverence will find it lacking; and those who want high camp won’t see much of that, either.
I, of course, am in the latter group – and happily, I did find a few things to delight me. Here’s a partial list – elements without which no bible movie is complete:
- The fake upper-class, British accent. The cast of Exodus is multinational, though mostly anglophone, and the accents vary considerably. But John Turturro (of all people!) as the old Pharaoh seems to be channeling Sir Cedric Hardwicke.
- At least one character is leering, scheming old queen, who eyes the younger men hungrily. In the good old days, this was a Jay Robinson specialty; here, it’s handled with some style by Ben Mendelsohn.
- A thunderously symphonic soundtrack, with several themes stolen from familiar works. Alberto Iglesias’s score borrows liberally from Orff’s Carmina Burana, and at two points, almost actionably from Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold.
- A miscast, “what am I doing here?” method actor. Ten Commandments had Edward G. Robinson; King of Kings had Harry Guardino; John Huston’s The Bible had George C. Scott. Exodus has the aforementioned Aaron Paul, who – though he probably says less than 10 words – manages to look out of place.
- Finally, what’s a bible movie without an imperious, bitchy trophy wife who demands that some other character be put to death? Here, it’s Sigourney Weaver – she sounds strangely midwestern, as though Pharaoh’s Queen wandered in from Liberty, Kansas. But she looks fabulous, in a variety of Avian-influenced headdresses.
So that’s the story. Not sorry I saw it – but I’m not giving away my DVD of The Ten Commandments.