Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Movie for Purim

One Night with the King is a film based on the biblical book of Esther. Just to be clear form this beginning, this is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. An excellent cast and some fine performances is not enough to compensate for a miserable screenplay. This is a pity because Esther is a great story and there is no reason why it should not make a good film. It has a beautiful heroine, Esther, caught in a dangerous exotic situation; she is a Jew, the niece of the sage Mordachai, forced to marry the Persian King, Achasveros (Xerxes). In order to survive she must hide her true identity. There is a villain, Haman, worthy of a James Bond film, with an unstoppable plot to kill lots of people, mainly all the Jews in the world. There is plenty of violence and intrigue to go around; people get hauled off and executed on a regular basis. In the end the Jews are saved so we can now eat, drink and celebrate. (This is story type narrative in all of its glory, which is why it is almost certainly not a historical event.)

Despite all of the film’s flaws it still managed to prove enjoyable. For one thing I am very fond of the book of Esther so seeing it as a film was worth beholding. Also the film, while fairly faithful to the source material, makes a number of interesting interpretive choices. My take on King Achasveros has tended to swing between the story of Esther itself, which portrays him as an easily manipulated fool, who seems to make most of the important decisions in the story while drunk, and the Talmud, which portrays him as being quite intelligent and very much in charge of the situation. I like to think of Achasveros as the sort of person who may be a clown but is a very smart clown; someone somewhere between Henry VIII and Herman Goering. People underestimate him and think they can manipulate him. Really he has everyone where he wants them and controls everything. The Xerxes of the film, played by Luke Goss (The villain in Hellboy II), is a total hunk. He is the sort of man that, regardless of his crown, girls would fall in love with. And the film plays on the idea that Esther is, at least to some extent, in love with him. Hegai is a very minor character in the story, he is simply the chamberlain in charge of the king’s harem, so I never thought much of him. The film turns him into a major character, who is a friend and confidant of Esther. He is also a giant black man, whose situation as the castrated slave of the king is clearly meant to draw parallels to African slavery in America. James Callis (Gaius Baltar in the television show Battlestar Galactica) steals the show as Haman. He actually manages to make Haman scary and intimidating. Admittedly the film goes way over the top with him, having him wear a swastika necklace and having him yell about the connections between the Greeks and their Democracy and the Jews with their one God and their hoped for savior. (The film was made by Christians so I guess they had to stick a christological reference in somewhere.) The climax of the story has Esther reveal her true identity to Achasveros, while both he and Haman are present at a private banquet that she is hosting. Esther does this in order to forestall the decree to kill the Jews, which Haman had Achasveros sign. Achasveros storms out of the room and Haman falls upon Esther and pleads for mercy. Achasveros comes back and thinks that Haman was attacking Esther. He therefore immediately has Haman executed. The film plays this scene out as Haman thinking he has won and that Esther’s gambit has failed. He starts to mock plead with her before turning and assaulting her.

Honorable mention should be made of John Rhys-Davies (Gimli in Lord of the Rings) who plays Mordachai. He is effective as a sage and caring father figure for Esther. Also honorable mention should be made of John Noble (Denethor in Lord of the Rings) as Prince Admatha. In the story Admatha is simply the name of Haman’s father. The film turns him into an early villain who helps bring Haman into power and whom Haman knocks off before too long.

So in the end this is not a good film, but those who are familiar with the story of Esther should at least get a good laugh out of it.


Miss S. said...

Wow...just when I almost forgot about this film, someone pulls it up yet again out of the dregs. I am sorry, but I think my 13 year-old sister can write a better screenplay that what was presented here. No wonder why people hesitate to see religiously themed films (or films made by religious groups/companies rather {I think Trinity Broadcasting had something to do with this film})

So in the end this is not a good film, but those who are familiar with the story of Esther should at least get a good laugh out of it.

Just "a good laugh"? Try many laughs at all the absurdities you'll see (rotating Magen David stars...anyone?). Even more if you've been ingesting alcohol.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Tobie said...

Watching (and mocking) One Night with the King is my new Purim tradition. And while the lame cinematography is obvious, it also offers a bunch of interesting interpretations, mostly about how the whole political situation is shaping the megillah, which is cool because the megilla definitely gives a sense of complex court and national politics going on behind the scenes, without letting us in on them.

Also- my new Purim game: supplying the dialog that Head!Six is having with Haman throughout the movie.

James Pate said...

I saw this film only once--a few years ago--and I didn't enjoy it, especially the part where Haman tries to assault the queen. I saw an old Esther movie in the library. I may see that when I get a DVD player.

James Pate said...

Here's something else I didn't like about it. In Esther, it's a really big deal when Esther gets to see the king, such that she could be put to death for coming in unannounced. In the movie, she sees him so often that it's not as big of a deal.