The challenges of creating an epic film are so demanding that most filmmakers have been put off before they have even started. The rise of CGI has made creating epics a little simpler for those with big budgets at their disposal, but without that amount of cash, few independent filmmakers have managed to create pictures that are truly epic in size, scale and scope as well as in story.
Michael Sajbel’s One Night With the King, out today, is one such exception. Produced on a shoe string by Matthew Crouch, Richard J. Cook, and the screenplay’s writer Stephan Blinn, it’s a far better effort than anyone who watched their previous effort (The Omega Code) would have expected. This is one of the most visually impressive epics in years. Steven Bernstein’s lush cinematography captures the wonder of Jodhpur, India, and transforms it into a beautiful, distant world of long ago. The sweeping, exterior shots are truly awesome. So many bible films are made in Morocco and Italy at present that those locations have become synonymous with the Holy Land. But this story takes place elsewhere, in Persia, and by switching to a new location, the film captures the otherness of this strange land which would have been so different to the Jews who were first brought into exile there.
The interior shots are no less impressive. Aradhana Seth’s production design, most notably the palace interiors are so vast and impressive they make DeMille’s The Ten Commandments look like a school play. Multitudes of extras inhabit both the interiors and exteriors filling these shots with a life and vitality that CGI struggles to replicate.
Ultimately though, even the most impressive visuals in the world cannot compensate for poor acting, and it is here that the movie is a little uneven. Certainly the cast list features an array of impressive stars. One can't blame the publicity team for boasting about how their film reunites Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole for the first time since Lawrence of Arabia. In the end though it's difficult to decide which is more surprising, that O'Toole's appearance is as short as it is, or that Sharif's is so prominent. As one would expect, Omar Sharif turns in a solid performance, as does John Rhys-Davies as Mordecai. But all this would be largely irrelevant were it not also for an impressive debut performance by Tiffany Dupont. With only television work, and one supporting film role to her credit she effortlessly makes the transition to a lead role.
Sadly, the acting side of things is let down, badly, by poor performances by Luke Goss and Tommy "Tiny" Lister as Xerses and Hagai respectively. Goss is just plain awful. Unsure of his accent, and unconvincing both as a king, and as a lover he spoils almost every scene he features in.
Lister, on the other hand, is perhaps less to blame for his problems. One of his biggest attribute is his fearsome size, and the producers have done him no favours by trying to cast him against type in an ultra-sensitive, beauty-treatment-loving, girl’s-best-friend type role. Lister may have been able to pull this off had the dialogue he was given not so patchy. "You think a eunuch cannot know love?" and so on. Throughout the film, the dialogue is inconsistent, often being unsure whether to speak in "epic" language, or to use more every day dialogue. At one point the script has Xerses cram both into the same sentence; "know you how many nights I spent counting the stars to take my mind off of you".
The script is also at fault with the role of Haman. Whilst it cleverly and creatively links Haman, an Agagite, with King Agag, who Samuel slays in the opening act, it fails to flesh out the meaning of all this to him personally. Haman’s revenge becomes another of those long standing secret society affairs, and his character remains fairly one-dimensional. Ultimately, the bible finds some sympathy for him as he begs Esther for his life once his conspiracy is uncovered. But the film makes Haman’s pleas sarcastic, refusing to allow any ambiguity in the character lest the audience might find some sympathy for him, and question his execution. Haman remains, then, a one-dimensional villain, and the deep, throaty voice that James Callis utilises further renders this, somewhat ironically, as a shrill and shallow depiction.
All in all, One Night With the King is a mixed affair, visually brilliant, and boasting some impressive acting and creative storytelling. For those points alone it certainly deserves to be seen, particularly on the big screen. Sadly, though, it also has its weaknesses. Whilst they are far from fatal they do detract from the undoubted quality of the film as a whole.
UPDATE: I have now posted my scene analysis