Ridley Scott’s latest movie is as gloomy as a rain-splattered English day and at times about as pleasurable. Grim-grey shades coat the story of how Egyptian nobleman Moses realised his true racial origins (he is Hebrew, not Egyptian), discovered God, rebelled against the despotic Pharaoh Rameses the II, led his people out of slavery with the aid of The One Above, and laid the groundwork for the religion we now know as Judaism.

Scott’s 150-minute drama is typically handsomely produced, with attention paid to costumes, sets and locations, but its cast is barely convincing and it lacks the flavour of magic and faith sorely needed to make a miracle-strewn foundational myth believable. Whether it’s John Turturro who plays the first Pharaoh, or Joel Edgerton as his successor Rameses the II or Christian Bale as the brooding prophet, the cast looks jittery and uncomfortable at being transported back to 1300 BCE. Steve Zaillian’s screenplay tries to update the movie’s themes to present-day concerns, but in doing so, he might just have sent present-day anxiety and scepticism back in time and stripped the story of its sense of wonderment and religiosity.

Not enough magic or miracle

The envy that Rameses feels over Moses’s superior abilities is straight out of Scott’s Gladiator; the Hebrew uprising against the tyrannical Egyptians can be regarded as a secular pro-democracy struggle; the plagues that terrorise the Egyptian capital city of Memphis can be explained as early signs of climate change. Did the Red Sea part because of Moses or changes in the tide table?

Moses himself is characterised by self-doubt throughout, questioning his role as a prophet as well as the efficacy of his god, represented here as a boy with a British accent.

The variety of English speaking styles on display, the litres of tanning lotion slathered on the face of Caucasian actors like Bale and Edgerton, and the copious use of computer-generated imagery locate this film as a Hollywood product designed to reel in audiences hungry for spectacle rather than authenticity. There are plenty of opportunities for awe-inspiring acts throughout the journey of Moses, which seems readymade for the movies, as was proven by Cecil B De Mille’s unabashedly rousing The Ten Commandments. Scott too doesn’t stint on the special effects displays, especially in the plague sequences, but the hand of the computer operator is often all too evident even in these moments.

De Mille also cast his film astutely, giving the messianic Charlton Heston a worthy adversary in Yul Brynner’s rugged Rameses. Brynner wore his alarmingly short skirts with the kind of insouciance that actors find hard to emulate these days. Edgerton is as comfortable with his kohl-lined eyes, bejewelled armour and hairless chest as the increasingly dishevelled Bale, who appears vastly relieved when his tribe has found its religious orientation, the commandments have been etched on stone and it’s all over. What this movie’s makers and actors needed was a little more faith.