From Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds, Risen provides an alternative viewpoint on the Resurrection and its aftermath. A film that starts out with earnest intentions ends up falling somewhere between a two-thousand-year-old episode of Silent Witness and an educational video R.E. teachers might play to schoolchildren. That’s not to say that Risen is without its virtues; the production values are solid, the soundtrack not overly intrusive and whilst the characterisation leaves something to be desired, Joseph Fiennes does his best with a lot of middle-distance staring.
Unlike many biblical yarns it is also refreshingly non-preachy and structured as a quasi-police investigation it brings a minute-by-minute immediacy, as well as wonderment, to perhaps the most famous missing persons case of all time. To some degree we share the same sense of disbelief as characters onscreen as we witness historic events play out for the first time. A wide angle shot of a grey, rocky wilderness shows a man, dressed in little more than rags, walk across a vast expanse of land towards us. However, rather than a well known individual who once spent forty days and forty nights wandering around such a landscape, it is Fiennes’ Roman Tribune, Clavius, seemingly fallen on hard times.
Expectations subverted – as will occur on a few occasions – this opening gambit bookends an extended flashback. Returning from conflict and having overseen the suitably brutal crucifixion, Clavius is tasked with solving the mysterious disappearance of the enigmatic Nazarene, Yeshua (the casting of Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis a shrewd move). With his tomb empty and word of a Messiah spreading, Pontius Pilate (a mildly amusing Peter Firth who is more exasperated bureaucrat than bloodthirsty tyrant) is under mounting pressure from the Emperor to locate the body and disprove a theory that could bring down the Roman Empire. As in any good hierarchical police drama everyone has a boss and Clavius has his subordinate, Lucius (Tom Felton); witnesses are questioned, bodies exhumed, the lead investigator has nightmares about the case, informants are paid and various lines of inquiry are followed.
Fiennes’ wide-eyed astonishment at discovering what many believers consider to be the truth of the case is one of the film’s stronger moments. It must be said, though, that the pacing is a little inconsistent, the script rife with words like ‘fathom’ and ‘vexed’ – to remind us that this is occurring two millennia ago – and the exhibition of miracles in the latter stages does come as rather heavy-handed. It’s unfortunate that Reynolds concerned himself with telling the story to such a degree without ever developing characters to be anything more than the symbolic, meaning the whole project never really builds any kind of momentum. Perhaps not as memorable or miraculous as it could have been, Risen is nonetheless commendable in its attempts to do something different with this epic historical genre.