I hope it won’t be taken as blasphemy if I say that The Gospel of John, a three-hour adaptation of the life of Jesus, is altogether too faithful to its source. The makers of this ponderously middlebrow Canadian production have re-created the Gospel of John in its pristine entirety — word for word, miracle for miracle. The trouble is, their reverence doesn’t come off as spiritually bold: It’s closer to the thudding, prosaic literal-mindedness of the ”Harry Potter” films.
Henry Ian Cusick, the British stage actor who plays Jesus, resembles a sleeker version of the fiery young Dustin Hoffman, and he has a captivating beatific presence. He makes goodness seem not pious but fearless — a blessed form of virility. Unfortunately, the Gospel of John (not the movie, the Biblical text) is less varied than most of the other Gospels. It’s full of Christ giving lectures, speechifying his mission, and the result, for the movies, lacks a charge of discovery: the Messiah as revelation, rather than just a given.
In the film, Jesus declaims his heavenly status in every scene, and you certainly believe it, because he’s the only figure on screen who approaches three dimensions. The director, Philip Saville, relies far too heavily on Christopher Plummer’s gaseous, PBS-goes-to-church narration (there’s only so much one can take of his stentorian assault on lines like ”He who comes from above is greater than all!”), and the staging, with its depopulated sets and very bad ’60s lighting, suggests a video supplement crafted for a Bible-study group. There is barely a whisper of the spirit, the lifeblood, the passion that has marked the cinema’s most memorable explorations of Jesus’ life, notably Scorsese’s ”The Last Temptation of Christ” and Pasolini’s ”The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” ”The Gospel of John” is so cut-and-dried it makes faith look easy — or, more to the point, simple.