Film review by Jason Day of Ben-Hur, the ancient Rome epic starring Jack Huston as a Jewish Prince deceived and enslaved by his vindictive former best friend Messala (Toby Kebbell).
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Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Prince of Judea. Messala (Toby Kebbell) is his adoptive brother and they are the best of friends. But Messala is Roman and he yearns for glory in his homeland to distinguish himself. He leaves and returns years later, hoping Judah will work with him to quell uprisings in Judea. When Judah refuses, Messala vindictively has him consigned to the galleys as a slave and imprisons his family. Judah must summon every ounce of strength to survive and prevail.
Review, by Jason Day
!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!
Hollywood reproduces its own successes with such regularity down the decades for a number of reasons.
Either the first attempt was no good, but has the kernel of something great, so you try again. The first attempt was good but technology has been updated so you can make a better looking version. Or perhaps society, the law and public taste has altered and you can tell a story more realistically, truthfully or from a different and more interesting angle.
It’s difficult to ascertain why it was felt necessary to dust off Lew Wallace’s mammoth 1880 bestseller, when one considers that the previous silver screen versions had more or less nailed adapting the book’s major moments detailed in it.
And to do this at a time when Roman era drama is hardly fashionable is a very big gamble indeed, particularly with $100 million of other people’s money.
The writers have monkeyed around with the ordering of things (we have a glimpse of the famous chariot race first and see Judah and Messala as friends before the empire gets between their friendship), which strengthens the construction of the drama, but adds nothing to the proceedings.
Similar reordering of events in the book occurs throughout the film, which can appear confusing to the Ben-Hur expert (of which I feel I am becoming one, after watching the 1926 and 1959 versions back to back recently) – some these more successful than others.
For instance, Judah and his family are condemned to their fate not by a loose roof tile, but by an assassins arrow. This is a tricky addition – it backs up the political machinations/Jewish rebellion being detailed in the film (a stronger element than in previous versions), but his families imprisonment doesn’t seem as horrifically, ironically unjust anymore.
Cutting out vast sections of the novel clears up masses of screen time; for those with over active bladders, the two hour duration here will seem like a God-given blessing compared with 1959’s literally epic 3 hours 40 odd minutes. Cinema audiences have different requirements now – gone are the days when very long films with overtures and intermissions put bums firmly on seats. This shorter running time will be much more palatable to a 2016 popcorn crowd.
For some unknown reason though, director Timur Bekmambetov still manages to rush the last third of the film. We are hurtled brutally on from one piece of action to the next, resulting in the soppiest, man-hug of endings that will have even the most die-hard of Christians shaking their bibles in disbelief.
Of the plusses: there is a lot of hubbub and noise to this film and Bekmambetov utilises the cinema veritee approach of the camera constantly bumping about to great effect – you feel you are right in amongst the throng of this bustling ancient world.
The galley sequence is the most impressive scene in this remake. I was never hugely impressed with the William Wyler recreation of the sea battle, there’s only so much a director can do with model miniatures in the MGM tank. This is where the 2016 Ben-Hur really shows off the great strides made over the past half century in movie special effects – the sinking sequence is splendidly realised and caps off the grimy, cramped, fetid existence Judah is reduced to.
That said, the chariot race (10 minutes compared with a quarter of an hour in 1926 and 1959) lacks Imperial distinction. It comes across like a day at the greyhound races rather than the blood-pumping race to death. The circus, obviously CGI’d, pales into insignificance compared with the monumental feat of actually building it in previous films.
The film is stuttering along at the box office; bigger stars in the cast might have helped. Huston and Kebbell are good, workmanlike actors (and in Huston, we have a Judah who is even more swooningly gorgeous than Ramon Novarro), but there is too much greying in of their characters for either to punch out anything heroic or vicious as has been performed previously. Their characters seem stifled by a sense of fairness so the conflict between them is dulled.
Freeman too lacks spirit as the Sheikh who helps Judah on the road to recovery and revenge, who seems to merely go through the motions, rather than the over-excited, humorous Hugh Griffith, who won the Best Support Oscar back in 1960.
Cast & credits
Director: Timur Bekmambetov.
Producers: Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin.
Writers: Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley.
Camera: Oliver Wood.
Music: Marco Beltrami.
Sets: Naomi Shohan.
Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Marwan Kenzari, Moises Arias, James Cosmo.