Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #11

Re: One Night with the King (2006)

I’ve been a great fan of your site ever since I read your Catholic World Report article on the film Into Great Silence, which I think is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. I have you to thank for bringing to my attention that and Wall-E which is good almost beyond hope for a children’s animated movie in these degenerate times — as rich as a good glass of eggnog and as beautiful as a tastefully trimmed Christmas tree.

I particularly appreciate that, even where your opinion matches the critical consensus, you often go into much more depth than most critics, discussing the themes and artistic strengths and weaknesses of a picture in detail. Although you are not, as you said in an article, the pope of movies, I might call you the G. K. Chesterton of movies, and I hope you realize that is a compliment indeed.

Having said that, I have a few comments to make about your review of One Night With the King. Although your negative-but-not-horrible opinion seems to be pretty typical, I think you and most of the other critics are missing a few important points.

Esther is clearly a Christ figure. She saves her people from destruction, brought on by their own disobedience of centuries past, by offering herself as a sacrifice to Xerxes (her lord, as Mordecai calls him). When She approaches the king unsummoned, the outcry from the princes is “Protocol has been broken!” Esther can be seen as a liberator from the protocol in the same sense that Paul sees Jesus as a liberator from the Jewish law. Her entrance into the king’s chamber is like the tearing of the temple veil.

Now that the veil is torn — the door is opened — the one mediator between God and man has approached the throne, the king has lowered his scepter, and he and his bride are restored to love, there is no barrier between us and God. In the second allegorical level, Esther’s relationship with Xerxes is an image of the soul’s relationship with God.

Although someone who hadn’t seen the movie and read what I’ve written so far might think the movie is as dull as my writing, all this “inner meaning” is only possible because of the very human story it’s in, and the allegory, far from cramping it, is what enriches and enlivens it. I mention this because it provides satisfactory answers to many of your objections to the film. Your review says: “He’s the king, right? What’s stopping him from being with the woman he wants (or not being with women he doesn’t want)?” The answer is that the king, no less than the queen or anyone else, is subject to the protocol, and it is expedient for the meaning of the story for that line to be followed here rather than perhaps more accurate “amorous freedom.”

I should add that this mutual “divine bridal” imagery seems to me to add another strength to the portrayal of the love between Esther and Xerxes: this mutual submission and honor, such as in Xerxes’ statement, “Did you not think I had the sense to see through your little parable?” and yet willing to be taken in anyway. I hope I make myself clear. Please note that I speak under correction here, since I am only 17, without personal experience of eros.

Since I have provided a detailed response to most of your criticisms of the film, I hope you will consider rethinking your opinion, perhaps seeing the film again to find out if you missed anything. While it may not be as great as it aspires to be, I think it lays out some very promising avenues for modern religious movies. Surely it should at least have been “worth noting” in your 2006 end-of-year listings.

Where to begin responding to such thoughtful, in-depth commentary (regrettably heavily edited here for length)?

Let me at least say that I am (a) delighted that my coverage of Into Great Silence and Wall-E brought those films to your attention; (b) charmed by your vivid praise of Wall-E’s virtues in particular; (c) unspeakably flattered by your “Chesterton of movies” compliment; (d) gratified by your careful reading and closely reasoned response to one of my reviews; and (e) rather crestfallen that the title you chose for your thoughtful rebuttal was, of all things, One Night With the King.

I hope you won’t be too disappointed if I don’t counter with a point-by-point defense of my original review. The hard truth is, I suspect that nearly any movie for which I might write a negative could just as easily support a more sympathetic, in-depth and even profound reading, much as you have offered here.

Peter Kreeft once said that the terror Pascal felt looking into the “eternal silence” of the night sky was fear of his own shadow. Under the right light, that same shadow may fall across many a seemingly unpromising movie, and plumb the same depths of the human heart.

It can thus be difficult to write the tepid or even chilly review I feel a movie deserves, knowing that somewhere out there is a viewer and a reader who regards that same movie with the same closely attentive care and joy of my own response to Into Great Silence or Wall-E (and who may well be left as cold by these films as I am by the film in question).

In the case of One Night with the King you cite a rich panoply of themes: human dignity and equality, divine solicitude, redemption, and the complementarity of male and female, among others. I don’t at all deny that the film is indeed about all of these things. What I can’t see is that it is about any of them in an interesting or insightful way — that it has a compelling or striking vision of human dignity and equality, divine solicitude, redemption or any of the rest. On that level, a parochial school play of salvation history could engage all of these themes and others besides; whether it did so in an artistically effective way would be another question.

In fact, the one point on which I will directly contradict you is your suggestion that “someone who hadn’t seen the movie and read what I’ve written so far might think the movie is as dull as my writing.” This exactly reverses the truth: If the movie were as interesting as what you’ve written about it, it would be a better movie.

On other points, I will, if not directly contradict, at least demur. To me, your explanation that Xerxes is bound by protocol, or at least expectations, from simply casting aside the other candidates and simply going to Esther if that’s what he wants to do, is at least dramatically and psychologically unsatisfying. Whatever narrative explanations may be offered, Xerxes is simply too passive, too weak to work as a romantic lead, let alone the icon of masculinity the role and the subtext seem to require.

I hope this response isn’t too discouraging. In principle, I would like to revisit One Night with the King and possibly reevaluate its merits. There are about a thousand other films I would like to afford the same attention; and, ahead of all of them, countless films I haven’t seen or reviewed. I’m afraid the sad truth is that I will very likely never again in this lifetime get to One Night with the King.

In lieu of that, though, let me tell you what will be much better than me writing a new review of One Night with the King. Keep writing yourself, and at the rate you’re going someday soon you’ll be in a position to tell the world how wrong I am about this film. We need as many good critics out there as we can get. If I had written like you when I was 17, I really would be writing like Chesterton now.

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