It was inevitable that Ridley Scott's venture into the Biblical epic genre would provoke both offence and scepticism.
Even before the film’s premiere this weekend, Scott was attacked from several angles. He was chastised for casting primarily white actors as the Egyptians. (The director defended himself, saying he wouldn’t have been able to finance the reported £127 million movie otherwise.) His decision to feature "God" as a truculent 11-year-old (played by British schoolboy Isaac Andrews) with close cropped hair and dirty fingernails, giving advice to Moses on the mountain top, provoked surprise. Christian Bale's description of his character as someone “most likely” suffering from schizophrenia wasn't well received either.
The film itself turns out to be a traditional, linear account of the Moses story that could have been taken from one of David Kossoff’s bible stories. It tries hard not to offend anyone too much, whether they're Richard Dawkins or the most fervent of Christian believers. The key events - the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea - are deliberately shrouded in ambiguity. Bale's Moses has suffered a severe head injury and it is left to us to us whether he is really in touch with the Divine or whether his visions are the result of trauma. As for Moses leading his people across the sea, he may just have got lucky with the tides.
The storytelling is often brutal. Moses' God is vengeful in the extreme toward the Egyptians who've kept the Hebrews in slavery for 400 years, visiting on them plague and pestilence. The filmmakers take a sadistic delight in showing the afflictions that face the Egyptians, everything from pustulent boils on their skin to frogs in their palaces and locusts devastating their crops.
As first encountered, Moses is a dashing Egyptian prince. He is very close to the pharaoh Seti (a resplendent John Turturro) and to Seti’s son and successor Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) whom he mistakenly believes to be his half brother. Bale gives an impressively full blooded performance as the Prophet, albeit one that can’t help but remind you of his Bruce Wayne/Batman in its shading. He plays Moses in the early scenes as a dashing action hero type who doesn’t believe in omens and prophecies. When he is cast out of Egypt and finds love with Zipporah (Maria Valverde), he is the doting family man. Then, after the burning bush, he becomes a far darker, more saturnine figure.
Scott serves up plenty of 3D spectacle. There are high angles shots of vast armies marching across plains and images of the huge quarries at which the Hebrews toil that remind you of Sebastião Salgado photographs. We’re aware, though, that he is using CGI - something which makes the biblical epics of yesteryear made by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz without the aid of digital trickery seem all the more impressive by comparison.
One of the disappointments of the film is the way Scott squanders his cast. He has formidable actors at his disposal: Sigourney Weaver as the pharaoh’s wife, Hiam Abbass as Moses’ adoptive mother, Ben Kingsley as the Hebrew leader who first recognises Moses. They are seen far too fleetingly to develop their characters in any meaningful way. The pick of the performances come from Joel Edgerton as Ramesses, a conflicted figure who turns to violence whenever he feels guilt or doubt, and from Ben Mendelsohn as the sleekly malevolent Egyptian viceroy Hegep.
Exodus: Gods And Kings doesn’t short change us as far as the crowd scenes, storms, battles, chases and recreation of ancient Egypt in all its pomp are concerned. The problem here is that this a strangely cautious affair whose own attitude toward its central character is never quite clear.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies