The story of Moses rising against the Egyptian Pharao Ramses and leading 600,000 Israelite slaves out of Egypt on a journey plagued by deadly dangers.
Sir Ridley Scott turned 77 on 30 November, but you’d never know it from the vim and vigour on display in his new Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings. Fairly faithful to the Scriptures in an all-too-familiar, over-the-top, CGI-infused Hollywood way, the film is also a propulsive, respectful and thus relatively family-friendly telling of the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) that led to the former spearheading God’s delivery of the chosen people out of Egypt and on their way to Canaan.
In 1300 BCE, the film announces via title cards, the Israelites have been enslaved for 400 years by the Egyptians. When a seer cautions pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, sporting a jarring British accent) that the one who saves will be the one who leads, the stage is set for his son Ramses to be rescued by general Moses during the pulse-pounding opening Egyptian attack on the out-manned and outflanked Hittites.
Soon afterwards, Moses aids Ramses by agreeing to visit Pithom, an outpost of particular Israelite cruelty run by a reptilian viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn, terrific). During his stay, Moses is told by the visionary Nun (Ben Kingsley) that he is really Jewish, news which gets back to the viceroy, subsequently enrages Ramses and thus forces Moses out of Egypt altogether.
This signals Moses wandering phase, which includes visions of the film’s invention Malak (Isaac Andrews), a cherubic Brit lad who fills in for God and tests Moses on his faith, vision and fortitude. Along the way he marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde) at a lonely shepherd’s outpost, fathering a boy but always questioning himself.
Once committed to God’s plan via the viscerally recreated plagues that befall Egypt that he watches from afar (none of this “let my people go!” scolding for this savior), Moses leads his massive flock out of Egypt and across the parted Red Sea in another spectacularly kinetic and aurally overwhelming sequence.
Filmmakers who tackle sword’n’sandal Biblical epics with heightened gravitas, a la Cecil B. Demille’s pompous The Ten Commandments, do so at their own risk. It’s a love-it-or-hate it genre that can often bog down in its own sense of self-righteous seriousness.
Yet even at two and a half hours, Scott’s film never drags. Credit the committed acting of Bale and Edgerton, the former taking all the time necessary to connect with his inner Hebrew, and the latter finding his arrogance giving way to a touching mixture of bluster and grief.
Add to this the extraordinary production values and the organic computer-generated sets—the film was shot in and around the Lawrence of Arabia locations of Almeria, Spain—and the film as a whole engages via canny acting set against sheer scope.
Speaking of the acting—or, more accurately, the actors—Scott and the production have taken some heat throughout production for casting white Anglo-Saxons in the key roles: Bale, Kingsley and Andrews are British, Edgerton and Mendelsohn are Australian, Valverde is Spanish, and so on.
It’s a legitimate point, and speaks to an inclusion that isn’t yet an integral part of the Hollywood process. The other side of the quite literal coin is the dilemma of financing a movie of this epic scale without bankable stars—who, in this case, just happen to be British, Australian and European. In apparently typically blunt fashion, Scott explained to Variety’s Scott Foundas “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Well, it should. But until a filmmaker with enough clout to push authentic ethnic actors through the funding process steps forward, it is bronzer, guyliner, hair and makeup and good old-fashioned emoting that will have to do—like it or not.
In a touching grace note, the film is dedicated “to my brother, Tony Scott.” Whilst it is unknown if Sir Ridley found some resonance in the fraternal maneuvering between Moses and Ramses in his own relationship with his brother, the established director who committed suicide in 2012 by jumping off a San Pedro, California bridge, or if he just wanted to tribute his sibling in his next produced work, the appearance of the card prior to the closing credits is as poignant as it is appropriate.
“The truth is, it’s not even that good of a story,” Moses says early in the film, and whilst Sir Ridley Scott has had his share of misfires (Someone to Watch Over Me, A Good Year, Prometheus), he’s also responsible for such resonant works as The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Now filming his next film, The Martian, he’s proven time and again that, in energy and perseverance, story-telling sense, not to mention vim and vigour, constitute the differences between kings and gods.