Movie Review: Ben-Hur (2016)
“Teacher. Prophet. Savior.”
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro
Synopsis: A Jewish nobleman is falsely accused of treason by his adoptive brother and imprisoned as a galley slave.
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There’s a scene in Timur Bekmambetov’s version of Ben-Hur in which Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston – American Hustle) admires the mementoes his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Warcraft) has acquired during his travels as a Roman legionnaire. ‘Wow,’ he says, and the sound of that single three letter word, uttered by a man living 1500 years before its first recorded use, is like a stylus dragged abruptly across vinyl. In less than a second, that small word strips Ben-Hur of all semblance of reality, and we’re rudely yanked from its world to warily observe the rest of the film from a position of emotional detachment. Sadly, it’s just one of a series of verbal and visual anachronisms that derail an otherwise half-decent stab at updating Lew Wallace’s religious epic.
Bekmambetov’s version was always going to receive unfavourable comparisons to William Wyler’s epic multi-award winning three-and-a-half-hour 1959 film, and does itself no favours by striving to condense its story into just a couple of hours. The first half of the movie, in particular, feels like the cinematic equivalent of one of those abridged Readers’ Digest novels with characters and relationships painted in the broadest of strokes. That’s to be expected in an age in which filmmakers dumb their product down so that they can cast their nets wide and snare as big an audience as possible, but that first hour or so still drags simply because there’s not enough depth to the story or its characters. Ben-Hur’s relationship with Messala is established in only a handful of short scenes which completely fail to provide any real sense of who these men are, and why, despite being members of the same family, their lives and beliefs have travelled such diverse paths. And the part played by Jesus in Bekmambetov’s version amounts to little more than a cameo role which feels shoehorned into the main body of the plot and tacked on to the end as it makes a half-hearted attempt to reinforce the film’s theme of forgiveness.
For some reason, Ben-Hur and Messala are no longer best friends, as they were in Wyler’s version, but adoptive brothers, and the homo-erotic undertones from the 1959 version are replaced by Messala’s love for his adoptive sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia). The men’s relationship sours following Messala’s return home as a Roman tribune under the influence of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), some of whose beliefs Ben-Hur strongly disagrees with. He finds himself condemned to life as a galley slave by Messala following an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate by a young man whom his family had taken in, while Tirzah and their mother are ordered to be crucified. But an unexpected escape from five years of slavery during a sea battle, and the aid of a benevolent Sheik (a dreadlocked Morgan Freeman – Last Vegas, London Has Fallen) enables Ben-Hur to pursue his dream of vengeance against his former brother.
Ironically, Ben-Hur becomes more watchable when it stops paying lip-service to notions of characterisation which it clearly considers outdated, and focuses instead on spectacle, and, realising where its strengths lie, it even uses the chariot race as a bookend with which to lure its audience, promising excitement and thrills if we can just manage to sit through the boring bits first. Those who emerge from that tiresome ordeal are rewarded with a couple of impressive action scenes: the sea battle from which Ben-Hur emerges a free man, and the iconic chariot race in which Ben-Hur and Messala manfully shout ‘Yaagh!’ at their horses and each other with heartfelt venom. It’s undoubtedly the highlight of Ben-Hur – the event, in fact, to which the entire movie has been building – and Bekmambetov’s direction places us so squarely in the thick of the action that you can almost taste the dust in the back of your throat. It’s visceral and thrilling, and it’s everything you want from a big-budget spectacular, but of course, it really is too little too late, and just leaves you wishing the rest of the movie could have been as good.
(Reviewed 2nd September 2016)