Sukkot is just barely over but Purim’s in the air, thanks to the release of One Night With the King, an epic example of unintentional shlock—with shots of broad desert landscapes, thunderous waterfalls, and an ever-so British narrator to remind us of the gravity of history—which opened last Friday across the country. A press release about the production from Fox Faith, a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox which makes “morally-driven, family friendly programming,” states that One Night wants to “inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them.”
Beyond the inconsistent accents, inane dialogue, and absurd production values—the entire thing appears to have been filmed on a bare set with blurry backdrops added in during post-production—the movie troubled me for other reasons. On its own, the Esther story is pretty high drama. It’s got vengeance, sex, violence, fear—everything you need to keep the action moving. But the filmmakers, producers Matthew and Laurie Crouch and director Michael Sajbel, it seems, found the source material wanting and amped it up for contemporary viewers. So we have backstories galore, including one in which a young Esther receives from her parents a necklace with a prism on it, which, in certain lights, refracts images of stars of David on the walls. We learn in a flashback that her folks were killed in an anti-Jewish riot, but orphanhood doesn’t get her down, no sir! She’s got Uncle Mordechai, played by John Rhys-Davies, with his comforting, Welsh brogue. There’s also a stab at modern reference, with a Bachelor-esque scene, in which the king’s competing prospective brides twitter in glee at the jewels they’re allowed to choose from for their night-time auditions with hunky Ahasuerus, played by Luke Goss. Doth the true text need such adornment?
More unfortunate, though, are the interpretations of Esther’s story that this particular movie gins up. While I don’t question Esther’s star power, with her ambivalent heroism, I’ve always been a fan too of Vashti, Ahasuerus’s first queen. She refuses, according to the original text, to parade herself before the king and his court. She will not serve as her husband’s arm candy. I’d guess that feminism is a tricky biz when it comes to the Christian right. And, in this film, when Vashti (Jyoti Dogra) adamantly refuses to go to the king’s feast it’s not because she takes issue with being sexually objectified, it’s because she’s protesting a war Ahasuerus is waging to avenge his father’s death, anti-war feeling being, apparently, a less divisive force among the faithful.
While the actual book of Esther is a story of palace intrigue, the filmmakers flipped the script and made it all about romance. “Is not love the greatest commandment, no matter what God one serves?” asketh the pixie-ish Esther (Tiffany DuPont). From what I know, the only commandment to do with love that a gal like Esther might have known is love of God. But she’s a romantic, that one, and in 2006 what female viewer doesn’t want romance? (I submit, again, The Bachelor.) In any case, the film, it turns out, is based not on the actual Book of Esther, but on a “novelization” of it—which I guess means a dose of Harlequin, minus heavy breathing.
Most troubling, but least surprising, is the spectre of Jesus throughout this wild venture. Characters speak of the “glory of God” and what an honor it is to search that out. Late in the film, Esther prays to a deity (God himself is famously absent in the original text) and uses the word “father” in seeking guidance about how to obey Mordechai’s instructions to out Haman as a mortal danger to the Jews. True, Jewish liturgy makes references to “our father,” but given the engine behind this production, such invocations here feel decidedly Christian. So do the messianic overtones which utterly pervert the story at hand. For those who need a moral, it is a story of hope, that a handful of people can change history. But never from the original have I inferred, as this movie suggests, that the outcome is due to divine intervention or some supernatural destiny. That, along with the film’s extensive narrative liberties, is a distortion of epic proportion. Certainly there are family-friendly lessons everyone can learn from Esther, but such perversion ought not be among them.