A brilliant, gripping interpretation of the last days of Christ awarded a beguiling contemporary feel by the fluid dialogue and the moulding of entrenched Biblical ciphers into believable characters.
What was God about it?
• The opening credits revealed that The Passion was an HBO/BBC co-production, which comes with it a guarantee of peerless authenticity, a fantastic cast and a budget big enough to hide the routed Napoleonic legions from the pursuing Duke of Wellington.
• The cast includes James Nesbitt as the deliciously sadistic Pontius Pilate, who appears to have the same reptilian disdain for the native populace of Jerusalem as any tinpot despot.
• Ben Daniels as the complex Caiaphas, a high priest who initially seems to be virtuous and just but as he feels the incremental usurpation of his authority by Jesus, he sets about poisoning the minds of those round him to remove this obstruction to the continued decadence and reverence he savours with his wife.
• But the stand out performance, appropriately, is that of Joseph Mawle as Jesus Christ. While the conduct of this Jesus may not always be credible or rational, it does make you question the enduring traditional perception of Jesus as a calm and tranquil beacon of piety, able to resist all the earthly temptations of mankind.
• And he does leak the sort of charisma that could compel his disciples to follow him heeding every aphorism, every sentiment he utters no matter how absurd it may appear at first. But he’s also flawed. At one point he throws a tantrum bellowing in a fury that he has to pay an entry fee to the temple: “Where does a child pay to enter his father’s house!”
• It’s outbursts such as this that make The Passion distinct from another run-of-the-mill version of the death of Jesus Christ. Rather than duly follow his story as he is persecuted by the authorities and the Romans, and put to death on a dubious charge, the character of Jesus will become central to the story rather than the martyrdom and the story itself; and this instils it as a novel elucidation of this ancient fable.
• And HBO’s budget has meant that the supporting cast are top notch too – Penelope Wilton as Mary, Denis Lawson as Annas, Esther Hall as Claudia, Stephen Graham as Barabus, Dean Lennox Kelly as James, David Oyelowo as Joseph of Arimethea, Paul Nicholls as Judas, Paloma Baeza as Mary and the bloke who played Warren’s brother in This Life as an angry Roman centurion.
• Mary’s annoyance surrounding the birth of Jesus when she had to convince her husband of God’s wishes for her to bear his son. “What if Joseph said: ‘I’m not going to marry you.’ What then?”
• The wonderful scenery and atmosphere. We first meet Jesus and his disciples as they trek across the arid landscape of the Middle-East, a panorama resplendent with precipitous cliffs and expansive plains that stretch off into the distance.
• And the city of Jerusalem is as well-observed and detailed, with Jesus and his disciples pushing their way through the claustrophobic throng amid the religious celebrations.
• The story of the murderer Barabus being given more prominence means that the plot can shift in pace from the pedestrian persecution of Jesus to the more sensual, brutal deeds of the Barabus as he kills a young tax collector for his collection to fund an uprising against the oppression of Rome.
What was bad about it?
• Most of the protagonists were all a shade paler than the rest of the inhabitants of Jersusalem, and their features were also blunter, more Westernised than them too.
• While much of the dialogue was seamlessly interwoven into the script, some phrases did jolt you out of the Biblical immersion such as when Claudia remarked: “Judeans could start an argument in an empty house!”
• In the scene where the Roman soldiers are sent into a bakery to hunt for the fugitive Barabus, it almost becomes like that scene from Life of Brian where about 30 troops charge into the base of the People’s Front of Judea but are unable to find the poorly concealed guerillas. It may have been a subtle homage, but one of the soldiers, almost on leaving, did spy Barabus and arrested him.
Aired from Sunday 16 March 2008