Risen rises to the challenge

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Lucius (Tom Felton) and Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) examine the crime scene in Risen.

Yesterday dear hubby took me out to dinner and movies for my birthday. The movie we picked is Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton and Cliff Curtis.

Set in the era of the Roman Empire it focuses on a pivotal 40 days of history as seen through the eyes of Clavius, a Roman tribune played very effectively by Fiennes.

Having spent a year researching ancient Rome (having re-read and re-watched I, Claudius into the bargain) while writing Dark Heart, (currently being edited), although 200 years after the events in Risen, I was looking forward to seeing it.

There’s a lot to like and, like all good movies, dear hubby and I discussed it all the way home and part of today as well – a hangover from 1980s and 1990s when we were professional film reviewers.

Loved, loved, loved the setting and the way it touched on Roman and Jewish culture and custom in a way that was natural – and that’s what historical stories should strive for. Characters in film or book should never seem conscious of their environment.

Be careful who your friends are...

Be careful who your friends are…

Risen is a detective story and it really works at this level. Clavius is an ambitious tribune hoping for a ticket out of the hell-hole that is Judea and his boss, Pilate is favourably disposed towards him.

What should have been a routine execution of seditious and criminal miscreants has Pilate worried. The Sanhedrin are acting like mafia stand-over merchants, exercising political pressure over one prisoner in particular – and that’s the last thing Pilate needs when the Emperor is expected to visit within the next fortnight

However the prisoner’s execution is just the beginning of the trouble. It gets worse when the body disappears and if the rumour spreads, the already restless city will be an uncontrollable riot.

I found myself watching the film and seeing how this could work nearly scene for scene as a 1930s noir:

  • A police department for the barracks
  • the seedy back alley of New York or San Francisco for Judea
  • A gun instead of a sword
  • The interrogations
  • An intense and emotional scene in a tavern
  • The hero who loses everything when he makes a stand for justice.

The dialogue is very naturalistic – none of the pontificating speeches of Hollywood biblical epics so entertainingly parodied to in the trailer for Hail, Caesar, the Cohen Brothers film which is next on the list to see when it opens.

And to me that was the real refreshing aspect of Risen, the characters were nuanced and subtly drawn. You felt as though you were watching ordinary people of their era going about their ordinary lives until an extraordinary event overtakes them.

The film is not without deliberate points of humour.

Lucius (Tom Felton) is a ambitious young rookie who comes to Clavius certain he has a lead – a prostitute has claimed she has seen this missing Yeshua alive.

“How will you recognise her?” asks Clavius.

Lucius’s enthusiasm is blunted.

“Well… she’s a woman of the street,” he says.

Clavius tells him, “You need someone who knows what she looks like.”

They head to his men’s barracks and Clavius asks the twenty or so inside if any one of them knows Mary Magdalene. After a moment’s hesitation one hand goes up, then another and then other until at least half the men have their hands raised.

Risen is good storytelling with strong performances. It is a film for a sophisticated audience who can put aside their preconceptions and allow the story to unfold before them and take the journey with Clavius. Highly recommended.

ADDED to say that I was sorry to hear of the passing of Umberto Eco, author of another great historical detective story, The Name Of The Rose.

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