Idol Chatter

Say the words “biblical epic,” and certain things come to mind. Charlton Heston, Cecil B. Demille, Yul Brynner. Heavy makeup, especially eyeliner. English accents, for sure. Grandiose sets, costumes, and plot points, at the expense of biblical accuracy. Long speeches set in archaic language, with lots of “lo, behold”s and “yea, though thou hast”s. Some sort of allusion to Jesus/salvation. And for the person with more than a passing knowledge of biblical texts, a frustrating time is generally a given.

Which is what makes “One Night With the King,” Gener8Xion Entertainment Inc.’s new film of the story of Esther–out in selected theaters this Friday–so refreshing. Instead of my internal voices saying “that’s not right,” or “jeez, what a misinterpretation of the text,” I was able to sit back and actually enjoy the story, with which I, bearing the name of the queen for more than three decades, am more than a little familiar.

The nutshell story of “One Night With the King”–adapted from the book by Tommy Tenney and Mark Andrew Olsen–is itself an adaptation of what’s known in Judaism as Megillat Esther (the biblical Book of Esther). Through a series of circumstances, a young Jewess, named Hadassah at the beginning of the story, changes her name to Esther (thereby concealing her Jewish identity) and ascends to the queenship of the Persian Empire. A the same time, a man named Haman, an enemy of the Jews, also gains power and gets the King of Persia to approve an order to destroy the Jews and confiscate their property.

Esther’s uncle (or in some accounts, her cousin) Mordecai reminds her that she is in a position to save her people. At great personal peril, she approaches the king without having been invited to do so, and begs him to save her people–advocating on behalf of the Jews and outing herself as a Jewess. The king grants her wish, Haman is punished, and the Jews are not destroyed, and everyone lives happily ever after, giving us the reason for the holiday of Purim.

In this version of the epic, recently endorsed by the American Bible Society, the political position of Persia at that point in world history–and the roles that queens and advisors play in and outside the palace–is stressed more so than the religious themes, with the love story between Esther and the King coming in second, in terms of prominence.

The acting is good, and not distractingly overdramatic–not everyone speaks in the same accent, and that’s okay. The scenery, resplendent with rich scarlets and lush golds, is reminiscent in scale and color scheme of Bollywood exports. (I later learned that the film was actually filmed in India.) Some cast members look like they just came over from the set of “Lord of the Rings” (there are two alumni of that epic in this film), and some overhead shots of Persia are so obviously CGI that one might wonder if James Cameron was involved. There were a few inconsistencies–one added character, Jesse, plays the role of “Hadassah’s friend from home who would have proposed had he not been forced into becoming a eunuch in the king’s palace.” He serves as a messenger, mostly, but his presence in a story that’s otherwise fairly faithful to the text is a bit jarring.

One standout among the actors is newcomer Tiffany Dupont, who plays Esther. In addition to being incredibly beautiful, she skillfully conveys the idealism and individuality of the young Hadassah and authentically charts the physical and emotional transition from peasant girl to queen and an agent for her nation’s redemption. And John Rhys-Davies, so memorable for his roles in both the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings trilogies, manages to erase our memories of those films and disappear into the role of Mordecai, a role I never would have cast him in, but which he fills brilliantly.

The film’s press materials boast a “Lawrence of Arabia” reunion, since the film includes performances from legendary actors and LoA costars Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. But those expecting the two to share actual screen time will be disappointed–O’Toole appears as Samuel the Prophet in the “prologue” section of the movie, while Sharif’s character (Prince Memucan) is a featured player in the Persia segments of the movie… and ne’er the twain shall onscreen meet.

As part of its grassroots marketing strategy, Gener8Xion Entertainment has included a three-week pastor preview screening tour as part of the film’s debut. Making stops in 19 cities, the tour is especially intended for pastors, youth leaders, social service professionals, and other faith leaders. ABS’s Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship has endorsed the movie as true-to-Scripture and says that it advances the mission of ABS by making biblical stories and the Bible more accessible and appealing to people throughout the world.

I freely admit that I sat down to watch this film with a chip on my shoulder. I fully thought it was going to be atrocious. But instead, I found it to be one of the more satisfying–and less annoying–biblical epics I’ve seen. What will really be interesting is to see how effectively this film can mainstream the story of Esther into the popular awareness, and if it will seed the way for other biblical epics that are both dramatically effective and faithful to the text.

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