TV Review: Modernized biblical epic drags

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Cecil B. DeMille is a tough act to follow.

Ken Woroner
Dougray Scott is Moses in "The Ten Commandments."
Click photo for larger image.

'The Ten Commandments'

When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on ABC.

Starring: Dougray Scott, Linus Roache, Naveen Andrews.

But the makers of ABC's "The Ten Commandments" say comparing their new miniseries to that 1956 epic is a case of "apples and oranges." The press notes say the new version is a "harsher reality epic ... closer to the true spirit of the written word of the Bible, with less gloss and more style."

Less gloss? Yes. But more style? Than DeMille? Puh-lease.

The miniseries, which premieres tonight, stars Dougray Scott as the man who was born a slave and raised a prince of Egypt but was called by God to return to his people to shepherd them out of slavery, to the Promised Land. Scott is a convincing Moses, emphasizing his confusion, anger and perpetual outsider status.

Naveen Andrews of "Lost" gives a moving portrayal as his adopted brother, Menerith, an officer in Pharaoh's army who is torn between duty and his love for Moses. Linus Roache, doing his best impersonation of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings," is Aaron, Moses' biological brother, who helps lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Omar Sharif does a supporting but memorable turn as Jethro, Moses' father-in-law.

Most of the acting stands up to the well-known material, but why do so many characters speak with British accents? Is this the Royal Shakespeare Company doing the Old Testament? Many actors also appear too light-skinned to come from this region of the world. Were Egyptian pharaohs really that pale?

The filming was done in Morocco, which provides grand spans of scenery and appropriately gritty settings in the desert.

Part I moves along briskly, covering Moses' birth and escape from death, his adoption by a princess, his upbringing in the royal house, his flight into the desert after he murders an Egyptian overseer, his communication with God and his return to Egypt to do what God has chosen him to do. Modern special effects add to the drama, with the exception of the burning bush, which twinkles more than flames. There are even greater expectations for the parting of the Red Sea, and this doesn't disappoint. It is there that the first night ends, with Moses' staff still raised while facing Menerith and the rest of Pharaoh's army.

Midway through night two, however, the action begins to drag, as Moses and his people wander the desert, the Israelites show their discontent and God remains ever vengeful. There are several battle scenes that are gruesome (lots of spurting blood), but even the orgy with the golden calf and Moses' return from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets seem anticlimactic.

I'm no Bible scholar, so I'm not completely sure where this "Ten Commandments" takes liberties. But it seems awfully convenient that Moses' trusted protector Jared turns out to be an adulterer and a murderer and bears false witness (that would be commandments five, six and eight, for those keeping score). In fact, the foreshadowing of most commandments plays out with a heavy hand.

Judge the miniseries on its own merits, or compare for yourself, when ABC airs the 1956 version Saturday night at 7. Either way, DeMille should rest easy.


Karen Carlin can be reached at kcarlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2588.


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