Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, Tara Fitzgerald, Maria Valverde, Ewen Bremner, Indira Varma

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Rating: 1 2 3

Christian Bale as Moses im Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings'I can't mount a film of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I'm just not going to get it financed.'

Thus spake Ridley Scott in defence of the whitewashed cast of his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings.

And l hate to admit it but he's got a point: my sister and I would never have voluntarily subjected ourselves to 2+ hours of sword and sandal shenanigans if our childhood hero Christian Bale hadn't been at the helm.

Bale plays Moses. You know, the guy in the Bible who leads his people from slavery to freedom. Sees a burning bush. Finds the ten commandments. And all of this happens in Exodus – in some ways rather unexpectedly. Who knew God would be portrayed not by Morgan Freeman (or even Michael Caine – c'mon, he'd be great) but by a slightly sullen-looking ten-year-old boy who's prone to hissy fits.

In other respects, however, the film is exactly what you'd expect from the director of Gladiator,  Kingdom of Heaven and, er, Robin Hood: a long, draining epic in which rival armies clash abrasively on vast dusty plains, the screen awash with slicing swords, charging chariots and seeping bloody wounds, a ponderous, pick'n'mix reinterpretation of the past in which the destinies of perma-tanned, world-weary males about whom we find we care very little are weighed in the balance of history.

Joel Edgerton as Ramses That's not to say that Exodus isn't entertaining – just perhaps not in the way Scott intended. Certainly ancient Egypt has never seemed so real, its Memphis (thank you very much) as dusty, chaotic and populous as modern day Cairo, and the painstaking attention to detail in the wigs, jewellery, costumes and scenery is an absolute delight. Who doesn't want to see a camp portly Pharoah (Joel Edgerton) dripping in gold and draped in snakes like Alice Cooper styled by Salvador Dali?

The plague scenes are a riot (at first, anyway – there's nothing fun about the death of the firstborn children) – a gleeful deluge of vengeful wildlife and rampant disease, flung hand over fist down from heaven by a bitter God, while his servant Moses stands helplessly by, his training montage of guerilla warfare tactics and rousing speeches dubbed insufficiently forceful. There's a great moment where Spud from Trainspotting tries to rationalise away the plagues to a sweating, boil-ridden Ramses, and a large number of the scenes can be instantly improved by quoting lines from The Life of Brian over the top. And face it, at times the dialogue can't really get any more ridiculous: l lost patience when Pharoah claimed he couldn't release the Hebrew slaves due to the 'economic rammifications’. Really? What was he afraid of? A double dip recession? More fool him – he got locusts.

Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings

Performance-wise, Christian Bale excels at doing his Christian Bale thing: looking ruggedly handsome and remaining utterly, solemnly po-faced while delivering some woefully unconvincing lines. Ben Kingsley is noble, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul barely recognisable and Sigourney Weaver, as Ramses' mother, sneers in time-honoured evil stepmother fashion while sporting a succession of dead birds on her head. Presumably when she signed up for this, she thought her part was going to be bigger.

Is it historically accurate? Really, that's the least of our worries. Is it anti-Semitic in its portrayal of the Hebrew God as some kind of merciless terrorist holding a whole kingdom to ransom? That's too big a question for me to tackle here, although in light of current events in Paris, it leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth. Is it even religious? Again, the film perches awkwardly on the fence. Is Moses really a celestially ordained prophet or a delusional madman, traumatised by his past and stunned by an unfortunate blow to the head? The supernatural plagues suggest he is; the tsunami-like nature of the parting of the Red Sea maybe not. I guess it's up to us to decide.

Finally, the most important question: is it worth seeing? Well, now it’s my turn to sit on the fence. If you're a fan of Bale, Monty Python or ancient Egypt or the idea of 'a less good Kingdom of Heaven' takes your fancy l'd say probably yes, but thou shalt not blame me if you disagree. Maybe not an epic fail, but a bit of a failed epic all the same.

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