Judge Gordon Sullivan just watched The World's Smallest Epic.
For such a time as this…
The Bible is fertile ground for creative types, whether they adapt a biblical story wholesale or just drop themes and allusions into their own narrative. The main reason it's so fertile is its sheer size, with hundreds of possible main characters. Another reason for its continued popularity is that The Bible really has it all: war, love, murder, miracles, and revenge. Not all biblical stories have to feature such grand narrative elements, as this 1999 TV adaptation of the biblical story of Esther confirms. However, Esther also confirms that most filmmakers should be sticking to the better-known stories from The Bible if they want to make an appealing film.
Esther is the story of Esther (Louise Lombard, CSI), an orphan raised by Mordecai (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus) in ancient Persia. When the king of Persia (Thomas Kretschmann, Wanted) dismisses his wife for insubordination, he must find a new woman to occupy him. He drafts numerous new women into his harem against their wills, including Esther. The king, however, falls in love with Esther without learning of her Jewish heritage. When his closest advisor Haman (Jurgen Prochnow, Beerfest) decides he wants to exterminate the Jews, Esther must decide whether to make a stand for her people.
I can think of four grounds on which a biblical film might be enjoyed. Here's how Esther stacks up:
• Spectacle. Many biblical films are known for their spectacle, their big-picture depiction of Bible stories. Esther does a decent job in this category. As a made-for-TV movie, Esther feels a little constrained by budgetary concerns, so outright spectacles is out. However, the film does an effective job with setting up the Persian palace, and the interiors, while heavily recycled throughout the film, look sufficiently sumptuous to be royal. The outdoor scenes, though, are a little less epic and scope. There's some attempt at detail and authenticity, but the budget and the TV frame really keep the film from feeling as big as it could.
• Drama. Many of the biblical stories are rife with betrayals, great loves, and the fate of countless lives, which makes them perfect fodder for dramatic films. Not so much with Esther. It's in the drama department where the film really falls down, because its main character is simply so good that she's pretty unbelievable. More than that, though, is the fact that she doesn't really change throughout the film: she starts out a good Jewish girl and ends up a good Jewish girl. The king is the one who really changes in a dramatic way, but the film doesn't really focus on him so that's no help. The plot, relying as it does on the providence of God, feels a little forced as well, which doesn't help the situation. To the film's credit, all the actors treat the material as if it were great drama. Louise Lombard, despite being rather pale and Irish for a Jewish girl, gives Esther a quiet dignity, while F. Murray Abraham brings a slightly louder gravitas to the role of Mordecai.
• History. Bible stories provide ample opportunity to address the history of the Middle East, charting everything from the movement of the Jews to the rise of the Roman empire. Esther, however, doesn't take much opportunity to deal with the history of Persia at the time. There's a bit of contextualization with the sacking of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile of the Jews, but overall, Esther tends to avoid taking history as its subject. The film also avoids any attempts at gritty realism. Everyone is clean and well-dressed and the palace sets look a bit dusty but otherwise very sanitary.
• Moral teachings. Many people use films of biblical stories as a visually interesting way to inculcate solid moral values. By making the stories more real through cinema, the hope is that their lessons will be all the more vivid. Esther could certainly work in this way, but it would take a bit of outside help to make it a solidly moral film. Generally speaking the film itself avoids the trap of overt moralizing. Instead, Esther's story is presented as fairly straight historical drama and the viewers are left to learn their own lessons. Aside from a few references to the facts of life in a harem, most viewers will find the film free of any objectionable material, though.
Sony brings Esther to DVD in its original full-frame aspect ratio. There's a bit of print damage here and there, but colors are well-saturated and detail is surprisingly strong. The audio is a simple mix but gets the job done. There are no extras on the disc aside from a few previews for other releases.
The Book of Esther just doesn't have the dramatic weight, at least in as timid an interpretation as this one, to carry a whole film. Although the acting in Esther is admirable, and this might be a great way to present a Bible story to some children, for most adults there just isn't enough going on in the film to justify any interest. For those who have to know more about Esther, this DVD release is solid in the technical department, even though it lacks any extras.
Although Esther is obviously a good woman, Esther is guilty of making her story uninteresting.
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