In 33 A.D., a Roman soldier named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is assigned to investigate the disappearance of a corpse. His employer, Pontius Pilate, informs Clavius that the missing body belonged to a man known as “Yeshua.” Clavius discovers that not only was the body missing from its tomb but that Yeshua is also reported by his followers to be alive.
What proceeds is definitely a first: ladies and gentlemen, here is a Biblical police procedural, with Fiennes acting as the sword and sandals equivalent of David Caruso. The momentum stops and starts in the same way a cop TV show builds an episodic mystery. Unlike the limp Son of God from two years back, this covers the story of the New Testament from a different angle, is mostly post-crucifixion and only proselytizes to the audience once. Risen isn’t perfect but its refreshing and stronger than expected.
The biggest problem is that the acting is uneven from top to bottom. Fiennes has the look for his role but brings no depth to the character. Considering the dramatic change of heart Clavius supposedly undergoes during the course of the story, Fiennes’ one-note acting diminishes the character’s journey. Fiennes had his moment as the star of Shakespeare in Love but he has yet to impress me since.
Former Harry Potter actor Tom Felton, who made his “Draco Malfoy” an iconic villain has, like Fiennes, struggled to redirect his career. Felton plays Lucius, a soldier who assists Clavius in his investigation. What Felton’s performance made me think about was how someone needs to hire him to play a young Malcolm McDowell.
On the other hand, Cliff Curtis’ quiet, understated take on “Yeshua” is a breath of fresh air. Looking like the famous rendering of Christ as a genuine Middle Eastern man and not the long-haired, blue-eyed, surfer buff rendering in pop culture, Curtis makes the role his own. Likewise, Peter Firth, the Oscar-nominated star of Equus, is subtle and commanding as Pontius Pilate.
While not one of the definitive movies about the life, death and resurrection of Christ, this is a big step in the right direction for independently made films targeting a faith-based audience. Here is an example of what can happen when you get a real director with impressive Hollywood credentials to helm a biblical movie. The filmmaker in question is Kevin Reynolds, the action movie ace who made Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the forever underrated Waterworld and the Easter Island epic Rapa Nui. He also helmed The Count of Monte Cristo, which starred Jim Caviezel.
Risen has Reynolds working with a far smaller budget than his usual output. This is especially obvious during the action sequences, which appear to be lacking more extras. Yet, Reynolds’ ability at staging eye catching movie moments is as strong as ever. Clavius’ dream of a crucified Christ in the ocean is a knockout, as is the use of CGI birds during a key sequence. There’s also the great, eerie moment when Clavius stares at a lifeless Christ as he’s taken off the cross.
The PG-13 rating is maximized in full: this is an appropriately violent film, depicting the Roman inflicted abuse with a gritty (but not exploitative) approach that gives this an authenticity.
Far less authentic is the classic Hollywood approach of having everyone in this Judea-based tale speak in English with British accents. Some of the dialogue stinks, particularly the sitcom-ready way Caiphus enters a room with “too late!” At least Pontius Pilate never says “Talk to the hand.”
Two and a Half Stars