Film and Book Reviews

Trimmer Ben-Hur, but older film better


By Tim Kroenert

September 6 2016
The chariot race is rendered in adrenaline-pumping splendour.

How do you remake a film that one popular idiom has as the very definition of bigness? In this case, it seems the answer is to go smaller. The most famous of the big-screen adaptations of the 19th century novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the multiple Oscar-winning 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, sprawled to three and a half hours. This latest film version (actually the fifth) is a relatively trim two hours. It proves that in some cases, less is simply just less.

Jack Huston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is forced into slavery on a galley after being falsely accused of sedition, by his adopted brother, orphan turned officer in the Roman army, Messala Severus (played by Toby Kebbell). The falling out between these former best friends happens against a backdrop of brutal colonisation and civil unrest, with the Romans desecrating Jewish graves in order to build their Circus, and Zealots returning the favour with violence.

Director Timur Bekmambetov cut his teeth on the cult Russian vampire flick Night Watch, and as a visual stylist brings an inventiveness to Ben-Hur that is a cut above many contemporary Hollywood action blockbusters. The scenes set in the gut of the Roman galley are suitably oppressive and grim; ancient Jerusalem is both mythic and tactile, the Minas Tirith of the Middle East; and the famous chariot race is rendered in brutal, adrenaline-pumping splendour.

And yet the story surrounding these grand set-pieces is less robust than it needs to be. Particularly once Judah escapes the galley and is taken under the wing of the Nubian sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who allows him to train as a chariot driver en route to seeking his revenge against Messala. It all feels a little too streamlined, rushed rather than concise, with Ilderim’s motivations remaining murky. The chariot race aside, the final act is choppy to the point of incoherence.

Rather more interesting is the portrayal of the Messiah (this is ‘a story of the Christ’, after all), played by Rodrigo Santoro basically as a peace activist. He can be seen around the streets of Jerusalem, not just speaking about forgiveness and love but literally putting his body on the line for them. Some of this eventually rubs off on Judah via the influence of his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), who is a disciple. It is a commendably unabashed secular take on the Gospel Jesus.