Review by Matt Page
After endless, though admittedly impressive, adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, it’s good to see a BBC drama that strays into less familiar territory. The Passion leaves 18th century England behind and heads off to first century Jerusalem. Gone are the fancy hats and horse-drawn carriages; instead we join a bunch of scruffy Jewish pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem.
Of course, from the moment former BBC1 controller Peter Fincham announced his intention to make a film about Jesus’ death, there was no doubt it would look the part. The same has been true of pretty much every historical drama the BBC has made in the last 20 years. The question was, how would it tell the story?
The pre-release publicity for The Passion has been at pains to stress how important it is to tell the story in context, and, from early on, it’s clear that this is no false boast. We start by joining a group of Jewish peasants on their way to Jerusalem. We’re about to witness a scene we’ve seen many times before – Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey – but this time the significance of that particular gate and that particular mode of transport seems to makes sense. Jesus is making a symbolic declaration about who he is that anyone familiar with the prophets will get right away.
One such person is the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas. But this is not the nasty man in the big hat that we’ve come to expect. This is a family man with an almost impossible job at the most difficult point in the year. Caught between the most powerful empire on earth and his own angry and volatile people, he has to keep the peace or Rome will come down on Judea like a ton of bricks. His concern at Jesus’ self-declaration is somewhat understandable.
The third major character in this story is Pontius Pilate (played by James Nesbitt). Pilate has come down to Jerusalem especially for the Passover, desperately hoping to get it over and done with so he can get back home to Caesarea. He’s not looking for trouble either, so he’s quick to stamp out any sort of disturbance as quickly as possible. Nesbitt adds steel to his character by using his natural Ulster accent. It’s a smart move which brings to mind another region caught in the midst of religious and political turmoil.
One of the real strengths of The Passion is the way it moves between these three stories. Obviously, much of it is fictional (although certainly based in historical reality), but introducing these backgrounds early on enables the action to flow more freely as things heat up. Frank Deasy’s script cleverly picks out little details from the Gospels and uses them not only to explain the drama, but also to create it. So, for example, Barabbas re-emerges from the shadows of the Gospels. No longer is he just a figure accused of some kind of robbery / insurrection / murder before getting off the hook and making it home in time for tea and hot cross buns. Deasy clarifies how the three very different sounding charges could actually stem from the same incident, whilst simultaneously delivering the most entertaining moment of the first episode.
The other major strength of the writing is the way in which it breathes new life into some of Jesus’ best known soundbites. As with The Last Temptation of Christ before it, The Passion rephrases classic lines, enabling us to hear them again as if for the first time. They sound like things someone might actually say, rather than something from a holy book.
But this is not just down to the writing. Joseph Mawle turns in a fantastic performance as Jesus – perhaps the best yet. Underneath his relaxed appearance is a steely determination and he delivers his religious and social critiques with a twinkle in his eye. He’s not classically good looking, but nevertheless has an interesting and appealing face. Moreover, it’s a very physical performance from Mawle, who fills the screen and grabs our attention in every scene he features in.
But it’s the ending of the film that will get people talking. It would be spoiling things to give much more away, but it will certainly intrigue those who have never really given the Easter story much thought, while leaving strong believers and unbelievers feeling they have been fairly treated. Any film about Jesus is bound to offend someone. Yet by working hard to get the history right, and then using that to craft a series that is dramatically as well as theologically interesting, the BBC have given The Passion the best chance to make the news for all the right reasons.
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These pages explore this stunning retelling of the passion of Jesus in words, images and video. Originally shown over Easter 2008, this BBC drama tells the story of the final week in the life of Jesus.
The Passion resource pack, available exclusively from Bible Society, contains all four episodes of the highly-acclaimed BBC series in a two-DVD set. The pack also includes cast interviews and a host of easy-to-use resources on CD-ROM.
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