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Noah may not be a
perfect film, or even a great one, but it has much to recommend it: tremendous
ambition, an intelligent concept and superior craftsmanship. At the outset, I
was reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s audacious debut feature pi; it’s a long road from that provocative indie to this $130
million dollar epic, but the filmmaker is still an original thinker and
visualist. Not that Noah is aimed at
the art-house crowd: it’s a mass-audience movie that dares to expand upon what we
know about a famous Biblical figure. (Two nuns sitting near me were impressed
with Aronofsky’s research and gave the picture their wholehearted approval.)

Trouble begins with Original Sin. Some generations later,
Noah has a vision which he doesn’t understand, at first. Gradually he realizes
that the Creator has chosen him to help the innocents of the world (namely, the
animals) survive a flood that will wipe humankind off the face of the earth.

In terms of spectacle, Noah
delivers what you would expect in the era of CGI: the building of the ark and
the coming of the flood are particularly impressive. Oddly, the parade of
animals toward the ark doesn’t have the impact it should because we’ve been
conditioned to take this kind of imagery for granted. If there had been just one
live elephant or giraffe it might have sold the sequence better; it’s an
unfortunate missed opportunity.

What one doesn’t expect to see is a collection of characters
who might have come from a Ray Harryhausen feature. These fallen angels are
known as the Watchers and look like a string of boulders cobbled together in
skeletal form. They serve an important role in the saga and certainly enliven
the film as a piece of entertainment.

But Noah rises or
falls on the human element of its story, largely invented by filmmaker Darren
Aronofsky and his screenwriting partner Ari Handel. They succeed in the
expositional portion of the film, as we meet the devout, kindhearted hero and
his loving family. Russell Crowe gives one of his best performances in the lead,
and Jennifer Connelly is quite good as his loving, patient wife. The younger
leads do their best, but their roles—and dialogue—are more problematic.

The film faces its greatest challenge in the climactic
portion of the story, as Noah is put to his ultimate test. Here the movie
becomes overheated and angst-ridden, as Noah alienates himself from his own
family, for the sake of fulfilling his covenant with the Creator. We understand
what is at stake, but some of the histrionics flirt uncomfortably with melodrama.

Noah benefits from
standout performances in two key supporting roles. Anthony Hopkins brings a
welcome, unexpected lightness of touch to his portrayal of Methuselah, Noah’s
grandfather, while Ray Winstone reminds us of his extraordinary power as Tubal-cain,
the ferocious leader who dares to defy Noah. It takes a commanding actor to
stand toe to toe with Russell Crowe at his most imposing, and Winstone is the
man for the job.

I give Aronofsky credit, not just for tackling this subject
matter, but for making a broadly entertaining, great-looking movie, even with
its flaws. Noah is a distinctive
film, even with its flaws, and certainly worth seeing.

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