Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, has here created a sombre, powerful biblical epic, shot through with a certain beserk grandeur and gloomy portentousness. Its desire to do justice to the spirit, if not the letter, of the scriptural source should not be doubted; Aronofsky, who co-wrote the script, has given us a grimy, roughened Noah story – one spattered with the blood of sacrificial victims, coated with snot and tears, and mostly lit by smoky torch flames.
In fleshing out, and embroidering, on the biblical narrative, Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel have conceived of their Noah as an doughty warrior with a husbandman's conscience – early on, he tells his son off for picking one of the sparse flowers growing out of the rocky soil, saying: "We take only what we need, only what we can use." His boatbuilding mission is constructed as an implacable desire to ensure the earth – or "creation" as it is tenderly rendered – is eradicated of all humankind, including himself and his family: another scene has him cheerfully informing his young children in which order they'll bury each other, and which one will die alone.
Little of this, of course, is in Genesis; nor is there much of the intricacies of Noah's family life, though Aronofsky and Handel have taken their cues from what is there. Noah's middle son, Ham (played by Percy Jackson's Logan Lerman), becomes the lightning rod of dissent, rebellion and betrayal; in the bible, he is the one whose child is cursed after witnessing Noah's nakedness. (Incidentally, this latter scene, which appears to have upset US Christians, is in fact a model of Pasoliniesque brevity and decorum.) Shem, played by Douglas Booth as a bland scrubby-bearded hunk, is the good son, marrying Ila (Emma Watson), who appears to have been entirely invented for the film – largely to provide Noah with a character-redeeming decision that sets up the film's moral climax. Jennifer Connelly, as Noah's wife, becomes a substantial character, posing questions for the patriarch and acting in effect as his suppressed conscience.
As for Noah himself, Russell Crowe is just about the only actor who could have pulled off the mixture of muttering, furrowed-brow intensity and slice-and-dice combat (occasionally in concert with some rather preposterous CGI human-smashing giants made from rocks) that the role calls for. Crowe's commitment is entirely commendable, and he brings his A game: the furious singleness of purpose, the savage whispering, the unadorned machismo. It's this, in truth, that carries the picture through its sporadic longueurs and intermittent structural lurches; it also helps get over the occasional absurdities of the sonorous, cod-biblical dialogue.
Visually, as you would expect, Aronofsky's film looks a treat, alternating between push-in-the-face handheld camera and large-scale apocalyptic tableau that wouldn't be out of place in John Martin or Breugel. He also injects some of his utterly distinct fast-cut "hip hop" sequences, which work surprisingly well – and there's a brilliant five minute segment in the middle of the film accompanying Crowe's description of creation that must have been conceived in similar spirit to the birth-of-the-universe scene in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.
Impressive as much of his film is, however, Aronofsky never quite solves the main challenge of the semi-literal biblical adaptation: what is so economical, and beautifully expressed, on the page can become a heavy, lumbering beast when translated into conventional narrative. There are plenty of good inventions along the way – such as the anaesthetising of the animals in the ark, or the dried snakeskin that becomes an amulet, wound phylacteries-style round the forearm – but also a bit too much stiff-armed posturing of the kind beloved of the modern fantasy epic. Still, Aronofsky keeps things eminently watchable – at two and a half hours he has to.