In two sentences, my review is: “the idea is a lot better than the execution,” and, “charmingly low-budget.” Oh, and, “they didn’t lean into the concept hard enough.” That’s three. Also, I didn’t actually finish this movie, because….I had a strong feeling it wasn’t going to get any better.
Well, the good, first off: Joseph Fiennes is a very good actor, with a very good almost-Roman look, and when he commits to mumbling a dramatic monologue about what, exactly, happens to crucified bodies to horrify a far-too-chipper-Nazarean into cooperating, he’s the next thing to electrifying. (Or when he experimentally prays to Yahweh and promises to erect temples and establish Games in His honor if He will Just. Stop. Helping. Them, hehhhhh.) Unfortunately, no one else is anywhere near this level, and it’s jarring.
Now, when you have a decent script but sub-par actors (especially with a period drama), there are several options. One of them is to go completely tongue in cheek, and play up the campiness. That wouldn’t really work here, because I, like many others, have watched selected clips from Life of Brian on Youtube, and kept waiting for the Romans to manhandle the prisoners, quite woughly. (They were actually quite considerate of civil rights in their interrogations, oddly enough.) Another one is to tone down the attempts at drama and have everyone be as matter-of-fact and serious as your everyday police procedural. Most actors can manage this. And then there’s the straight-up, serious attempts at drama–which is great if and only if you have a script that is decently epic, actors who can sell portentious dialogue, a director who can emphasize the correct emotions at the correct time, and, let’s face it, a high enough budget. Dancing girls are optional but by God they really do help. What absolutely does not work is having not very good actors try to sell not very good (but terribly dramatic) dialogue. And, outside of Fiennes, that’s what they’ve got.
(Oh, hey, apparently this also stars the former Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton. Huh.)
As far as low-budget charm, well…I mean, even in the absence of dancing girls and the far more egregious lack of shirtless beefcakey dudes fighting wabid animals, you can’t go all that far wrong with sword-and-sandals. You just can’t. So the sets are fine and the costumes look more than adequate and unfortunately are more than adequate.
As for not having faith in their own ideas, the elephant in the snowline is this: scriptwriters* just have no idea how to write characters with faith; characters grappling with crises of faith; or characters who have just been overwhelmed by the miraculous intervention of new beliefs. Generally what they do is just say something on the lines of “he stares in wonder at the miraculous intervention.” Well, Joesph Fiennes is a very good actor, but you can only do so much by staring at things.
*(Kevin Reynolds is credited as screenwriter for The Count of Monte Cristo. Ye gods that’s a terrible thing to have on your resume. 2002 Monte Cristo is literally only watchable because of Jim Caviezel in frilly shirts. Paul Aiello has two credits to his name, neither of which I recognized. Not a good sign.)
What was the idea that I though was so brilliant and which almost, in flashes, showed promise of actually making this movie work? Treating it like a modern-day police procedural. Treating it like a hard-edged murder mystery. Or even, maybe–just maybe–letting the characters have space to breathe, become fleshed out, help us become immersed in their world and their mysteries and their problems..
If nothing else, it’ll make us wonder what they’re staring at this time.