2007 has been a busy years for Moses films. The summer found David Wain's bawdy examination of the Ten Commandments in The Ten. Then, last month, Christian Slater voiced a CGI Moses in Promenade Pictures' The Ten Commandments. Now it's the turn of a British film to take a look at this subject matter in Penny Woolcock's Exodus - a modernised take on the Moses story set in Margate on the south-east coast of England.
In this version of the story, the people of Israel are replaced by a group of immigrants and homeless people who are being incarcerated in a huge camp on the site of the "Dreamland" fun park. But as the police squads come in the night, one woman manages to escape just long enough to leave her baby with one of those who will remain outside.
The outsider happens to be Batya Mann, the wife of the politician who formed the idea of this incarceration camp, Pharaoh Mann. Thus Moses is brought up the son of this Pharaoh, and the real story of his birth remains a secret.
All that changes, however, when years later, Moses takes a trip into Dreamland, and kills a security guard. He's rescued by Aaron and Zipporah, but they reveal his true identity, and, as Moses is safe from prosecution inside the camp he decides to stay. Moses eventually marries Zipporah, and starts work for her father Jethro giving an education to the street children.There's always a danger when setting a well known story in a modern context that the parallels won't come off, or that the whole thing ends up feeling a bit contrived. Here, however, the various elements hold together fairly well. The idea of the "undesirables" of society being caged in seems a little far fetched until a reporter mentions the concentration camps of the last century, and it suddenly becomes apparent that these things are not as unlikely as they may have seemed.
That said, a lot hangs on the relationship between Pharaoh and his wife. It's established right at the start that she is opposed to his politics, but as the film unfolds we discover that in spite of this there is a strong mutual love between them. In order to maintain this they have both had to lie to themselves - Batya that she will be able to change her husband's appalling politics, and Pharaoh that his beloved son is not related to the people he has so cold-heartedly locked up.
The believability of this relationship is largely down to impressive performances by Ger Ryan (Stardust and Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). It's no so much the way they deliver their lines as the way they carry themselves. Both are subtle and understated performances, and it's to the credit of Hill, particularly, that he is able to add some humanity to a truly monstrous character.What's fascinating about Exodus, however, is the way that we see the process happening in reverse in Pharaoh's adopted son. Initially, Moses seems to have followed in his mother's footsteps. He's compassionate, and troubled by the camp, smuggling books into it via his maid. But once Jethro is killed by a "Pest control" gunman he decides to start an uprising which becomes increasingly violent. He may be on the other side of the ideological fence to the man who brought him up, but he clearly has Pharaoh's ability to ignore the cries of his victims whilst in pursuit of his goal.
Moses plan to liberate those inside the camp is by unleashing a series of attacks that function as the 10 plagues. Initially he uses his love of micro-biology to poison the sea with a red algae. This is followed by spreading devastating computer viruses, and contaminating food, and so on.
The use of these plagues will be the largest determining factor in how people respond to the film. Some will argue that these modern plagues do not offer a fair comparison. After all, those in the Bible were the work of God whereas these are solely the work of Moses and his comrades. At the other end of the spectrum will be those who, for some time, have been troubled by the carnage wrought on the Egyptian people by the plagues and the death of the first born, and are pleased to see a film that gives voice to their concerns.
There will be still others, however, who find watching this film is a genuinely disturbing experience, as, for perhaps the first time they see the story of the Exodus from the point of view of those on the losing side. The Exodus story has long held a cherished place in Liberation Theology, but it's rare that people consider the lot of the ordinary Egyptians, ruled by a tyrant, and blighted by plagues and the death of their children because of his stubbornness.
Unfortunately, having pulled off this brilliant expose, the film flounders, seemingly unable to suggest a way forward. It's clearly not in favour of incarcerating any group of people en masse, but it's unable to give them the ability to rise above the morals of their oppressors. It's perhaps the starkest of warnings about the current course of this country's politicians on the issue of immigration, as if it's saying that if competition continues to mount over who can be toughest on immigration, then look what might happen. The problem is that this ultimately depicts those seeking asylum in an eerily similar light to the way they are portrayed by far right politicians.
So whilst Exodus delivers strongly in it's re-contextualisation of the Moses story, it's arguably less successful in creating meaningful dialogue about immigration.