Keeping up with the stream of remakes that have been pouring out of Hollywood for the past few decades, it is now Ben-Hur‘s turn and it is just like all the others, a big spectacle and a desperate attempt from the studios to try and relive their glory days.
Ben-Hur has the shiny look of a summer blockbuster (it certainly has the budget of) but the cast of a film that wants to be taken more seriously. Although this is the fifth adaptation of the novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ , it cannot help but be overshadowed by the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston as the eponymous hero. The award-winning epic is a difficult film to follow on from and with several key differences, a much shorter running time and an inferior script, Ben-Hur the younger cannot measure up.
The tagline, ‘brother against brother, slave against empire’ sets the scene and tone. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince and his adoptive Roman brother Messala are out racing their horses, with Morgan Freeman’s recognisable voice joining them through narration that is not needed. In this version, the story centers around two brothers on opposing sides which means that the rest of the story is predictable and that this opening sequence will be significant in some way and be referred back to later on in the story.
All Ben-Hur ever wanted was peace but in a world where the Romans are destroying his land, this was never going to happen. Forced to choose between betraying a zealot who wanted his own revenge and naming names to his brother now Roman officer, his life and his family’s lives are ruined forever. Messala barely hesitates before he sends his adoptive family to death, sending Ben-Hur to rot in slavery as a rower aboard a Roman galley.
From the start, the film doesn’t feel steady, changing how the story is presented beginning with narration, then cutting to a family celebration and suddenly time passes through another voiceover of a letter being written. Too many devices are used to try and tell in the story, which here, is about two brothers but them switches to a slave who wants revenge. The addition of Jesus as an actual main part of the film is a mistake. His story is happening at the side but is danger over of overpowering the promise of what is stated in the tagline. Jesus is too present for the story to be about Ben-Hur.
With Timur Bekmambetov at the helm, the refreshing take on this historical epic looked to be promising. There are hints of brilliance that was previously seen in Night Watch and Day Watch, particularly the battle scene in the Roman gally, you can almost taste the sweat and fear in these close quarters, but instead of taking a leap into the unknown, it is just like any other Hollywood film, complete with out of the blue Hollywood happy, hugs all round ending that is completely out of place.
Despite the many faults and jarring pace, the film does boast of a great cast. Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell are brilliantly cast as Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, but they just aren’t given the script that they deserve, which is just such a shame. The dialogue aside, luckily they get to be apart of the best scene in the film, the infamous chariot race. As bloody and terrifying as hoped for, the race is full of adrenaline and, even though the out some can be predicted, it is still exciting to watch. A standout scene and worth sitting through the 123 minute film.
It seems that when a film tries to do something different that might not pay off, it claims that it is ‘a new interpretation’ which means that the creators and the studio can do what they like. Unfortunately, ‘new interpretation’ means changing the story dramatically and turning it into a slight rip off of Gladiator and we are not entertained.
Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Scr: Keith Clarke, John Ridley
Based on: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Morgan Freeman
Prd: Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin
DOP: Oliver Wood
Music: Marco Beltrami
Runtime: 123 min
Ben-Hur is out in cinemas on the 7th September 2016