★★★★☆Let it be howled from the mountain tops that with his extraordinary Noah (2014), director Darren Aronofsky has crafted a bold, phantasmagorical interpretation of the Old Testament tale as we've never seen it before. In it, mankind - led by Tubal-Cain (British hardman Ray Winstone) - has spread like a cancer across the world, consuming all in their path and living in smoggy, ashen cities. "The Creator", in his infinite wisdom, decides to send a great flood to cleanse the earth of his creation and start anew. He does, however, choose to save Noah (Russell Crowe, on-form here), last patriarch of the antediluvian age, and his family, who must build an ark that will house two of every living creature.
In one excruciatingly harrowing scene, Crowe's bedraggled, exhausted Noah sits hunched deep in the bowels of the Ark, attempting to block out the tempestuous winds that themselves fail to mask the shrieks and screams of those outside. The doomed inhabitants of the earth clamber to the tips of mountains to escape the lashing waves, in a bravura shot that feels lifted straight from one of Bosch's nightmarish oils or something from the pages of Dante's Inferno. Noah's family, including his wife, Naameh (a strong, eye-catching performance from Jennifer Connelly), are not so stoic, pleading for him to do something. Aronofosky, as you would expect, has obviously done his research and expands on the archetypal Christian deluge tale, drawing influence from the likes of The Epic of Gilgamesh as well as the Jewish Midrash.
The Black Swan (2011) director also playfully addresses other elements of the Old Testament, including the trials of Job, the testing of Abraham, and even the story of creation itself. The latter is dealt with in a mesmerising timelapse montage with Crowe's Noah recounting to his offspring the Seven Day Myth, which (somewhat predictably) walks a religious, rather than evolutionary, line. These all feed into a complex rendition of the character - loyal, wounded, yet also tender. Like Aronofosky's The Fountain (2006) before it, the divisive Noah is sure to have its detractors. However, for its sheer scope, its demented madness and the way it glides through a world of ancient mysticism, this is an arresting, sobering epic - with Aronofsky's greatest achievement being the way he makes an all-too familiar tale feel utterly alien.
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