Fortunately, “Gospel of John” doesn’t grab viewers by the lapels and spout doctrine.

The movie is a handsome, word-for-word interpretation of the fourth and, perhaps, most spiritual of the New Testament’s gospels. If you’ve ever dozed off over the familiar passages, even reading the Good News Bible version used here, this visual realization will remind you how much tension and drama this story will always have.

The Canadian and British producers made three especially wise hires: narrator Christopher Plummer, actor Henry Ian Cusick and director Philip Saville.

Plummer speaks in a resonant, unhurried, gentle but well-inflected voice, delivering every line of the book that isn’t dialogue.

Cusick is an electrifying Jesus, whether flailing moneylenders or commiserating quietly with the weeping sisters of Lazarus. He’s full of laughter, compassion, energy and unshakable confidence.

The writing in John’s gospel is more conversational and less rabbinical than in the other three, and Jesus spends a lot of time answering questions about his identity and authority. Cusick’s performance shows why crowds might have sat spellbound at Jesus’ feet, even in daily discourse.

Saville doesn’t go in for flashy camera work or overemphatic stylization. Miracles happen matter-of-factly, without thunderclaps or bursts of light, as if Christ were obliging God without attracting undue celebrity to himself.

Because the book repeats itself, especially in Jesus’ explanations of his relationship with God, the film seems repetitive. The filmmakers never deviate from the source, so many conversations take place in mime. Some characters come and go without identification; if you don’t know who Mary Magdalene is, this movie provides no help.

At the same time, Saville and screenwriter John Goldsmith imbue characters with unexpected complexity. The common people who feel threatened by Jesus are genuinely curious about him.

The film is fortunate in its casting, which borrows mostly from British television and theater. Daniel Kash is an impetuous Simon Peter, Stuart Bunce an observant John, Scott Handy a wild-eyed yet tender John the Baptist.

Yet this lily-white casting is also the main awkward element. Brown, black and olive-skinned extras abound, yet all Christ’s close friends are Caucasians. In a movie that strives for fidelity to the story from which it springs, couldn’t we have more honesty about the people who lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East?


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