I’ve not had the fortune of seeing the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, nor read the novel by Lew Wallace, but thankfully the original adaptation has been remade so my small, millennial brain doesn’t have to endure one of those old films.
By no means do I dislike an adaptation or a remake, but they should strive to add something to the source material, or tell the story in a different way; not just slap a layer of CGI over the top and call it a day.
Thankfully, that means I’m not going to be biased in my review of Ben-Hur. Confusing character motives mix with wooden acting and poorly executed green screen meld together to create a Gladiator wannabe with a ham-fisted Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) cameo thrown in the mix. Interesting, considering the book is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ.”
The narrative follows two brothers (one adopted) on two sides of a conflict. One a wealthy Jew, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), the other a Roman soldier, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), both living in the boiling pot of Jerusalem during the rise and fall of Jesus Christ.
Spoilers ahead, folks (see below for no spoilers). After a monumental misunderstanding (and a very ungrateful house guest), the Ben-Hur family is torn apart by Messala himself. A particularly jarring act of cold aggression considering one moment he’s in love with Naomi Ben-Hur (Ayelet Zurer) and the next he’s ready to crucify her. Messala’s snap from brother to heartless Centurion would have been less startling had it been alluded to more subtly or had we seen him attempt to, at least once, speak with the family who had raised him and ascertain their side of the story. It then becomes a classic case of contrived drama where characters act against their original represented nature, a drama able to be rectified with a simple five-minute conversation between both offended parties should they take a moment to talk.
The film attempts to handle notions of blind vengeance and merge them with the teachings of Jesus. Forgiveness being particularly potent. However, it comes across as hollow and rushed as Jesus’ part consists of perhaps five minutes total on-screen time. Spanning near enough ten years, Judah has two or three run-ins with Jesus, none of them longer than thirty seconds, and is yet profoundly touched by his message. All hostility, suffering, and anger is deus exed away by the end of the film after Judah witnesses Christ’s crucifixion, which again happens for no apparent reason other than because it did.
Spoiler-free zone: despite the various angering plot points, credit absolutely must be given for the locations, set designs, and costumes. The film features an impressive array of bright and colourful era-appropriate costumes alongside vibrant Roman armour. They steer away from the gritty realistic tone I had been expecting; a tone so common with contemporary cinema and one which would have certainly lent itself to a flick like this.In fact, the film was surprisingly family friendly. No excessive gore, no explicits of any real significance that I can recall. Quite surprising given the era and subject matter.
There should also be an honorary mention for the galley ship battle, also. Impressive CGI used sparingly and to fantastic effect, and a chilling, below deck perspective of the rowers’ horrific lives. Seeing a Roman strapped to the bow of a ramming Greek vessel will haunt me for weeks to come, I’m sure.
Overall, I’d call Ben-Hur disappointing. It did plenty right, but most of that was aesthetics. The score wasn’t particularly memorable besides the laughably contrapuntal credit’s pop ballet: The Only Way Out by Andra Day and even that sticks to mind for the wrong reasons. The cinematography was uninspired but technically fine, and the chariot race, the film’s big marketing point, was over in about three to five minutes (which felt a little like I’d been duped into watching an episode of Eastenders after being promised Fast and Furious).
Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Scr: Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbaek, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Morgan Freeman
Prd: Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin
DOP: Oliver Wood
Music: Marco Beltrami
Run time: 125 mins
Ben-Hur will be available for Digital Download on the 9th of January, and Blu-ray/DVD on the 16th of January.