The story of Purim, the biblical Book of Esther, would make a terrific movie. Hopefully, One Night With the King hasn't ruined its chances. This is what happens when you start letting goyim make movies. (That's a joke, people.) The producers of the film are religious Christians, whose hearts are clearly in the right place, but who could have done a little more research before committing this thing to film.
Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s produced tremendous biblical epics, based on Hebrew Bible and the Christian one, set in the First Temple period and the Second Temple era. I'm willing to give a wide degree of artistic latitude to filmmakers who take on this material. I'm even willing to allow for screenplays that do some violence to subtleties in the Rabbinic backstory (known as MID-rash). But in this case, the decisions to do so were completely unnecessary, and more inquisitive minds, who go back and actually read the story, may end up believing that the filmmakers' innovations are part of that tradition.
To be sure, they did get a couple of details right. Ahashverosh is a fool, easily manipulated by advisors. The Jews, by and large, did not return to Israel after Cyrus the Great permitted them to, and the existential threat is interpreted in part by the Rabbis as punishment for this assimilation. But these details are lost in the reworking.
The main motivation for the action is Xerxes's impending invasion of Iraq, er, Greece, to avenge his father's death four years earlier, and to prove his manliness to the court. Vashti, who in Esther refuses to attend the King's banquet out of her regard for her own royal dignity, is now set up as an anti-war protester. Esther – rightly called Hadassah – has some sort of magic jewel that acts as a kind of planetarium projector under the right light.
The Midrash tags Ahasverosh as being insecure because he's a usurper, having married Vashti, Nebuchadnezzar's granddaughter, to secure his right to the throne. What, marriages of political convenience aren't enough? And if you're going to make a story out of a book who's main point is that God can act through seemingly natural events, having a tailor-made-for-marketing magic crystal act as the witness for Esther's Judaism undermines the whole enterprise.
In the Midrash, Haman has spent time among the Jews, and hates them anyway. Here, he's just sort of anti-Semitic from the get-go and from afar, murdering Esther's parents (another complete invention). How much more texture would the real Haman have had?
The Midrash provides more than enough material for a great movie of palace intrigue, romance, and politics on an epic scale. The changes replace the sublime with the ridiculous. Esther's bold venture into the King's presence, and Mordechai's moving speech that prompts it, are robbed of almost all their considerable inherent dramatic value by this setup act.
I'm even willing to cut the evangelical filmmakers a little slack when it comes to Christological interpretation, even though the older generation usually played it straight with Samson and Delilah, and David and Bathsheba. But the whole Greek-invasion-Jewish-sympathizer stuff acts as a Trojan horse, so to speak, for their ideas. Haman wages his campaign against the Jews on the notion that they're forming a fifth column for the Greeks. He also claims that the Jews talk of a redeemer, a "King of Kings" who will level all men.
The implication is clearly that the Jews are being persecuted for their correct beliefs. But Christianity stands on Jerusalem and Athens, and the Jews refer to God, never the Messiah, as the "King of Kings." In any event, the concept of the Messiah does not appear to have been developed anywhere near that fully by 500 BCE. It's possible, of course, that they don't even realize what they're doing, that they think they're doing Jews a favor by showing how Judaism shares democracy's core idea that "all men are created equal."
They get their western history wrong, too, claiming that the Persians "permitted" the Greeks to retain their hate democracy after a military defeat. In fact, the Greeks defeated the Persians in defense of their civilization.
The romance portion is just silly as presented. They could have at least had the King come up to Esther at a masquerade ball and ask her if she knows where he could find, or even if she were, this Esther that he's heard about. Instead we get "The Bachelor in Shushan," with the Master of the Harem acting as Master of Ceremonies. I'm sure Chris Harrison is delighted to be played as a eunuch.
Even some of the attempts at Jewish authenticity are laughable. In a scene from the book, Haman confronts Mordechai when he refuses to bow down, knocking him down with his scepter. The Jewish hand extended to help Mordechai up is clearly wearing a red string around the wrist.
The casting director got it about half-right. John Rhys-Davies is natural and riveting as Mordechai. Omar Sharif turns in a workmanlike performance as Xerxes's general. Someone named Tiffany Dupont proves that you don't have to be Jewish to play Esther, although the role here isn't all that demanding. But Luke Goss is as wooden as his sword as Xerxes, and a number of the minor roles stick out like afterthoughts in a community theater production of Shakespeare.
The main redeeming feature of the film is that it looks fabulous. The rendition of the city of Shushan is jaw-dropping. The costumes are what is usually called, "sumptuous," and the military encampment is appropriately, er, Spartan.
For anyone who's interested in reading a coherent narrative of the Purim story, based on selected Midrashim and presented as a compelling story, I'd strongly recommend putting the price of the movie tickets towards Turnabout, based on the writings of Rabbi Meir Leibush. It's a great read, will probably take about as long to read as to sit through the film, and will be much more rewarding.Powered by Sidelines