ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING ** 1/2 Tiffany Dupont, Luke Goss, Omar Sharif; rated PG (violence, adult themes); see Page W2 for theaters.
"One Night With the King" has lavish costumes, giggling harems, a vast ancient city, huge armies, black riders and blood feuds. But no hobbits.
It's a talky imitation DeMille no sex, little action but plenty of intrigues, treachery and comeuppance.
An adequate cast and competent direction make this the most ambitious Biblical period piece since "The Passion of the Christ."
It needed a better script and a Charlton Heston a magnetic, scenery-chewing leading man. But it has its Yul Brynner. "King" has charismatic villains aplenty.
The movie was adapted from the Tommy Tenney-Mark Andrew Olsen novel based on the Bible's Book of Esther. It's a Jews-in-exile tale of a girl (Tiffany Dupont) who hides her Hebrew identity when she is taken into the harem of the Persian king, Xerxes (Luke Goss). Once there, she enchants him with stories of her race and falls for him. And then duty calls.
Hadassah (Dupont) is the apple of her Uncle Mordecai's (John Rhys-Davies) eye, and adored by her cousin Jesse (Jonah Lotan). That's before the emperor dumps his queen and decrees that all the fetching lasses in the land must audition for his harem before he leaves to avenge himself on those troublesome Greeks.
And all the boys in the empire are candidates to be palace eunuchs.
So that's bad news for Hadassah, whose uncle renames her Esther, hoping she'll "pass." And it's worse news for Jesse, who'll be hitting the high notes from now on.
But wait, there's backstory an ancient blood feud between the Jews and the Agagites, whom the Jews almost wiped out. Peter O'Toole is the prophet Samuel, who orders that genocide in an opening flashback.
A descendent of the "child-sacrificing" Agagites, Hamen (James Callis) is captain of the palace guards and bent on avenging his people on the Jews. He's scheming with a malevolent prince (John Noble of "Lord of the Rings") against a peace-preaching prince (Omar Sharif).
It's complicated, and the talk-talk-talk scheming clutters up the movie and waters down the impact of Esther's challenge. Long Bible story short, Xerxes wants revenge on the Greeks, and Hamen figures the Jews could finance that war if they are wiped out and robbed.
"Do not make void what your father's death has purchased," Sharif's Prince Memucan warns Xerxes, who vows to punish the Greeks who killed his invader-father, Darius. Screenwriter Stephan Blinn fixates on the word "protocol," and fills the dialogue with melodramatic blandishments such as "Prepare to die, Greek lover!"
Dupont has a winsome screen presence, but she and Goss who looks like something off the cover of a romance novel don't really click. The producers have burdened the story with chat, have sanitized the harem and stripped almost all the sexuality (a single double entendre) from the tale.
But to a man, the wizened screen veterans class up the film, with Rhys-Davies thundering the portentous narration, O'Toole going Old Testament on the Agagites, and Noble and Callis lying, cheating, murdering and all but smacking their lips over it.
Filmed at an Indian castle (Rajasthan), with digital vistas added to recreate the ancient capital, Persepolis, this movie reaches for the scale of "Lord of the Rings" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" at a fraction of the cost. It doesn't quite get there.
The producers' ambitions have done justice to a tale that is tribal history, not a supernatural myth. Esther's triumph is due to her humanity and bravery that make that "One Night" worth remembering, 2,500 years later.
"One Night With the King" is rated PG for violence, some sensuality and thematic elements. Running time: 121 minutes.