Essentially a biblical detective story that begins as a Roman-led hunt for a missing messiah gone from his tomb and grows into a semi-compelling quest for something higher, 'Risen' has sincerity and honest spiritual grappling on its side. All that’s missing from the movie’s early scenes is that clanging 'Law & Order' noise, as battle-exhausted military tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) calls in various Jewish caricatures for questioning, confers with a scowling Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) and runs down leads. (Clavius’s hot-headed aide is played by Draco Malfoy himself: Harry Potter’s Tom Felton.)
Bursting into a private get-together attended by the stigmata-marked Jesus – referred to throughout by his Jewish name, Yeshua (a serene Cliff Curtis) – Clavius is stunned and falls to the floor. He follows the group into the desert, shedding his armour. Director Kevin Reynolds is no Martin Scorsese: once upon a time, he made 'Waterworld', a sin for which he should still be atoning. But he does linger on Fiennes’s heavy brow, an appreciable shift to capturing an internal disquiet. The actor follows suit, sometimes approaching a hangdog, Roy Scheider-esque confusion that shades the movie nicely.
The back half of 'Risen' is stronger, cutting through occasionally cheesy special effects with some well-written conversations about religious awakening. (Fiennes doesn’t exactly 'squint against the grandeur!' per the Coens’ remarkably similar 'Hail, Caesar!' but comes close.) It’s not often that faith-based films, competing in the same marketplace that rewards action, embrace the deeper, more difficult idea of meeting hate with love, but 'Risen' tries. It doesn't seek to convert viewers. Nor does it confront true believers with anything uncomfortable, instead aiming to reaffirm their bedrock convictions.