In late 2006, UK television company Channel 4 began to hype a film that ostensibly had the power to revolutionise the British movie industry. The film, tentatively called “The Margate Exodus” was set to break new ground. Director Penny Woolcock was at the helm of one of the biggest cinematic undertakings in British history; shooting entirely in the aforementioned seaside town, and using a cast composed almost completely of untrained local actors, she set out to create a bleak vision of Britain’s future. By re-telling the biblical story of Exodus, Woolcock also aimed to highlight problems of racism and intolerance in British society.
TV documentaries, newspaper spots and youtube videos were all released in the follow months, hyping “Exodus” up beyond all belief. In addition to this, UK Arts Company Artangel commissioned a live festival during the film shoot, culminating in an 80-foot tall statue made from Margate’s garbage being burned “Wickerman”-style.
So what happened to this film? Well…nothing really. The hype diminished; the film seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. No more was said about “Exodus”. That was, until roughly a year later. In November of 2007, “Exodus” suddenly appeared on Channel 4 prime time. Finally we would be answered: will this picture live up to the prophecies, and lead our film industry to the Promised Land?
It’s not that Exodus is all bad, however it has several shortcomings that hamper the film’s credibility. Starting with plot: The plot basically retells the story of Exodus in modern (or near-futuristic) times. The nationalist (read: fascist) Mayor of Margate (Pharaoh) tries to rid the town of people who don’t fit into his “perfect world” vision: immigrants, asylum-seekers, homosexuals, the unemployed – all of the people you’d expect a fascist to hate. He does this by forcing them all into a ghetto known as “Dreamland”, where they cannot leave unless they have a work permit. Fast forward 20 years and Pharaoh’s son Moses disagrees so strongly with his father’s right-wing (fascist) views that he leaves the comfort of upper-class Margate and opts to live in Dreamland with his ethnic love interest Zipporah. Shocked to discover that Dreamland has degenerated into nothing more than a shantytown, Moses vows to liberate these downtrodden people, even if it means getting biblical on his old man’s ass (literally).
This storyline quickly becomes convoluted and increasing hard to follow. By the end of “Exodus”, the plot becomes about as far removed from the Old Testament story as Channel 4 is from having sensible film ideas. Over the course of time, the storyline and character motivations dissolve, and the movie falls into a sort of accidental fantasy. Aided by a dream-like soundtrack and excessively stylised (although top-notch) cinematography, the film becomes more and more fantastical, therefore losing any sense of realism or political relevance.
Penny Woolcock obviously wanted to present “Exodus” purely as a socio-political statement, and this is where the film really fails. It appears to be a movie about intolerance in the first half, then transforms into a movie about terrorism in the second. This sudden turn is acceptable, as watching Moses struggle with the thought of using terrorist tactics (a clever insinuation of the biblical plagues) is a pretty interesting dramatic concept. However, come the third act, this conflict is gone, as Moses and crew throw caution to the wind and decide to give Pharaoh an all-out war, caring not for the innocent people they harm.
To make this even more complex, Woolcock also attempts to show us every possible viewpoint. As the movie progresses, she turns Pharaoh into an almost sympathetic character, and although he remains an antagonist, we are made to see his human side. This would have been effective, if Moses had remained a pillar of benevolence, instead of becoming some kind of grey-area anti-hero.
Due to this inconsistency, “Exodus” becomes vastly disinteresting towards its climax. The biblical story pitted the downtrodden against an omnipotent foe; and this is the beauty of any great tale. Giving the audience clear group of protagonists to root for involves them, and makes them want for more. However, Woolcock’s “Exodus” completely misunderstands the simple concept of good vs. evil. Who would you rather root for: a bunch of ignorant, complacent fascists, or a gang of animalistic terrorists? Personally, my only hope was that “Exodus” would hurry up and finish.
However, when “Exodus” finally did “hurry up and finish”, the ending was pretty unsatisfying, and made no attempt to re-affirm any of the film’s previous religious or political viewpoints. Instead, it is rather nihilistic: a somewhat horrible hybrid of “The Warriors’” final scene and “Saving Private Ryan’s” opening. Suffice to say, bringing sudden nihilism to what was initially a religious affair does not exactly provide a satisfying conclusion.
Like I said previously, “Exodus” is by no means terrible. The camerawork and lighting are skilfully implemented, the soundtrack compliments the film’s atmosphere perfectly, and the art design (although generic) is not half bad.
“Exodus” can’t really be faulted in terms of acting, either. David Percival is decent as Moses, and Claire Hope-Ashitey is convincing as Zipporah. However it is Bernard Hull who steals the show as Joseph Stalin/Saddam Hussein lovechild Pharaoh. He, along with Ger Ryan (Pharaoh’s long-suffering wife Batya), acts circles around the rest of the cast, and makes a very silly script almost believable. As for the supporting cast of Margate locals…not too much can be said. The acting varies from spot-on (Michael Tulloch as an insane Rastafarian Yardman) to high-school drama class quality (just about everyone else…especially the child actors).
But ignore (for a second) all the horrible things I’ve just said. Perhaps the saddest thing about “Exodus” is wasted potential. If Penny Woolcock had just stuck to making a simple fantasy movie, eschewing socio-political overtones, and instead giving us more identifiable characters, “Exodus” may have been the fabled “saviour” of the UK film industry. However, this was not the case. As it stands, “Exodus” is not a bad movie, but just not good enough to lead us to the Promised Land.
Penny Woolcock (director) / Penny Woolcock (screenplay)
CAST: Clare-Hope Ashitey … Zipporah
Bernard Hill … Pharaoh
Anthony Johnson … Aaron
Rena Jugati … Levi (as Katerina Jugati)
Dritan Kastrati … Ali
Michelle Lam … Bo
Delroy Moore … Jethro
Jane Osano … Dr. Malika