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There are few movies more satisfying than those epic tales woven into enthralling pieces of visual storytelling. Classics like Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and The Ten Commandments all come to mind when considering that category of film. The Biblical story of Esther is another one of those epic bits of history that has “potentially great movie” written all over it, but One Night With A King is a disappointing attempt at bringing the story to the screen.
Based on the novel “Hadassah”, the movie follows a young Jewish woman by that name (Tiffany Dupont) who lives in ancient imperial Persia during the reign of King Xerxes (Luke Goss). Orphaned as a child, she has been raised by her kind, wise uncle Mordecai (John Rys-Davies) who works as a scribe in the king’s palace. Political turmoil in the King’s house forces him to cast aside his queen and launch an empire wide search for her replacement. Despite the fact that the Jewish people are at the bottom of the Persian totem pole, the beautiful Hadassah is conscripted into the king’s harem as a candidate to become queen. There she trains for her future queenly duties under the rough but encouraging eye of the intimidating royal eunuch Hagai (Tommy Lister).
For her protection, Mordecai gives Hadassah a new name, Esther, and encourages her to keep her Jewish identity a secret. After winning the king’s heart with her simple beauty and generous spirit, Esther is chosen as queen. Meanwhile Haman the Agagite (James Callis), who sports a 500 year-old blood grudge against the Jews, slowly connives his way up the Persian political food chain. When he gets close enough to the top, he spins a plot that pits the empire against the entire Jewish nation. It falls to Esther to save her people at the risk of her own life by revealing her true heritage to her husband king.
It’s not for a lack of good acting that the movie misses. In fact you might think it impossible to fail with a cast that includes immortals like John Rys-Davies, Omar Shariff, John Noble , and Peter O’Toole (who, despite getting top billing, is only on screen for thirty seconds) as well as rising stars like Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis. There’s also no room for complaint when it comes to production values. Production designer Aradhana Seth’s vision of ancient Persia is absolutely breathtaking and the detail paid to every minute aspect competes on the level of other recent epic masterpieces like The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately for the movie (and the audience), the film’s problems run much, much deeper.
Screenplay adapter Stephan Blinn, whose only other writing credits are the two heavy-headed Omega Code films, has crafted a script so disjointed and discombobulated that it makes me wonder if he’s purposely trying to make the audience wince. To make matters worse, his characters go back and forth between speaking plainly and rambling off diatribes that sound like Yoda doing his best with a Shakespearean monologue. A downright sleepy start gives the feeling that director Michael O. Sajbel doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. Once Esther gets into the palace harem, the director manages some very nice moments between her and Hagai, but what should have been an amazing first act is frittered away on scenes that generate little to zero excitement.
Things get a little more hopeful in the second act as Callis’ villainously creepy Haman takes a more prominent role. He finally gives Noble, Shariff and Dupont a character they can play off of well and most of their scenes give glimpses into how great a movie this could have been. But just when things are starting to pull together, Blinn and Sajbel take a straight forward and exciting finale full of intrigue and suspense and turn it into an over-dramatized, over-acted piece of epic schmaltz.
As stories go, Esther is one of my favorites. Maybe my hopes were a little high, but for something this epic I don’t think there’s room for anything but the greatest expectation. It hurts me to say that, given genre and style, the guys behind the Veggie Tale’s version of Esther did the story better justice. Despite the incredible visual design and mostly brilliant cast, when it comes to making recommendations, One Night With The King leaves me with no choice but to point you towards the aisle with the CG vegetables.