Exodus: Gods and Kings
Repetition reigns in Ridley Scott's latest round of swords and sandals, but so does a strong sense of character and contemplation.
Swords, sandals, speeches and spectacle: in a Ridley Scott-directed epic, all are to be expected. It comes as no surprise that Exodus: Gods and Kings has each in abundance. Men fight, moral dialogue dominates, and 3D computer-generated imagery delivers everything from palaces and now-fallen monuments to parted seas and giant waves.
What might come as a surprise is that Scott’s latest round of swinging steel fares better than it perhaps should. The veteran helmer’s vision of the tale from the Old Testament Book of Exodus falls between his lauded Gladiator and less applauded Kingdom of Heaven. Repetition reigns in an over-extended, blood-soaked effort, but so does a strong sense of character and contemplation.
For those unfamiliar with biblical narratives, the story of Moses swaps between sides in one of the greatest tussles in Judaism. In Egypt circa 1300 BC, a punishing regime saw the empire’s 400,000 Hebrew inhabitants worked to death as slaves — a system that had been in place for over 400 years. Moses (Christian Bale) grew up alongside Pharaoh-in-waiting Rhamses (Joel Edgerton), unaware of his true heritage. Upon discovering he belongs to the people his friend so willingly exploits, he is exiled, but remains unwavering in his quest for change.
So far, so standard — at least where film depictions of the oft-covered pseudo-sibling-rivalry circumstances are involved. Indeed, standard is an apt description for a feature that goes through the motions in relaying its well-documented plot points. Moses and Rhamses argue. God sets Moses on a mission. Plagues — a river of blood, frogs, locusts and more — try to convince Rhamses of the right decision.
Bale’s involvement, as culturally questionable as his and other casting may be, provides a stirring central performance and a strong protagonist. In channelling the conflict at the heart of the story, he broodingly expresses the impact of Moses’s many battles — with himself, his origins, his identity, and the notion of faith. In an effort that muses at length about these issues, he offers an eloquent manifestation of the inherent struggle. The film suffers whenever he isn’t on screen, though such instances are rare.
Elsewhere, the rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well, more as a result of a script tinkered with by four writers than anything else. With eyeliner aplenty, Edgerton simmers with corruption and confusion, and Ben Mendelsohn hams it up (in an unlikely Animal Kingdom reunion). Ben Kingsley is quiet but convincing as a symbol of the oppressed, but many other big names — Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver, most notably — are given little to do. The less said about the squandering of talented actresses such as Golshifteh Farahani and Hiam Abbass, the better.
Thankfully, among the clumsiness and the bulging roster of familiar faces, Exodus: Gods and Kings finds the midway point between the overblown and unnecessary, and the interesting and epic. Come for the biblical action, stay for the powerful lead performance, and witness an average but still engaging take on a famous tale.
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