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Great Scott! A tale of Biblical proportions

Exodus: Gods and Kings review

If anyone can do justice to this Old Testament epic it's the man who has given us modern classics like Gladiator, says Andrew Johnston.

From Cecil B DeMille's lavish productions of the early 20th century to this year's frankly demented Noah, there always seems to be an audience for biblical epics. But big-screen interpretations of 'the good book' often prove to be controversial, and Exodus: Gods and Kings by Ridley Scott is no different. The Alien and Gladiator director's large-scale telling of The Book of Exodus arrives on a wave of criticism for its supposedly racist casting and a bizarre representation of God as a small boy with an English accent.

But if filmmakers can take liberties with classic novels, why not The Bible, too? The question is, is Exodus: Gods and Kings a good movie? And the answer is yes, if not quite a great one.

The plot - adapted by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian - should be familiar to anyone who did RE at school. In 1300 BC Egypt, the pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro) favours macho military man Moses (Christian Bale) over his own son, the rather effete Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton). But when Moses's true lineage is revealed, he is cast out and launches a decades-long journey to free the Hebrew people and ultimately transcribe the Ten Commandments.

The central challenge with Scott's would-be Christmas blockbuster is accepting the likes of Bale, Edgerton or Turturro - an Englishman, an Australian and an Italian American - as ancient Egyptians. The solution seems to be to lather the actors in eyeliner, fake tan and facial hair, but there's no masking the incongruity. Yet if you can get past the casting, the performances themselves - particularly that of the gimlet-eyed Edgerton - are solid. There's also fine, if low-key, support from Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul, while the fantastic Ben Mendelsohn notches up another scene-stealing role, as a conniving viceroy in Ramesses's court.

After opening with the sort of battle Peter Jackson would probably take three films to build up to, Exodus: Gods and Kings settles into an hour or so of background storytelling.

Once Moses has been banished and the fightback begins, the movie almost plays like a biblical version of Death Wish, with Bale's vigilante figure tormenting cartoonish bad guy Ramesses and God invoking His Old Testament wrath on the bullying king's henchmen.

Though Bale's Moses looks on with a seemingly disturbed acceptance of the Creator's will, viewers should find some sadistic entertainment value in the Egyptians falling prey to a series of crocodile attacks, frog infestations and fly-borne infections. It all culminates in a showdown in the Red Sea that is as bonkers as it is brilliant.

Co-produced by Belfast man Mark Huffam (whose previous credits include everything from Saving Private Ryan to Game of Thrones), Exodus: Gods and Kings is certainly not short on spectacle. Boasting thousands of extras, massive sets and exotic locations, much of the film's £90m budget is up there on the screen. The 3D adds little, however, barring a few immersive, 'plague's-eye view' moments.

Scott is no miracle worker, but he has managed to make The Book of Exodus palatable for the multiplex.

All that remains now is for people to go.

Four stars

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