Back in 1880, Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ first appeared. A big hit at the time, it’s now overshadowed by the 1959 film adaptation, a near four-hour epic starring Charlton Heston that swept the Oscars, walking off with 11 statuettes. To attempt another version given the esteem William Wyler’s MGM production is held in seems quite frankly foolhardy. There’s little to change that view after two hours of a tepid and unconvincing remake.
To be fair to Timur Bekmambetov and the team behind this new version, this version of Ben-Hur wouldn’t be the first to fall beneath Heston’s chariot. There were two earlier adaptations: a 2003 animated film featuring the voice of Heston and a TV miniseries, not to mention a stage play. The ground around the Roman circus is extremely well-trodden. It would take something very special to linger beyond the running time. There’s nothing even slightly special here.
The best this new adaptation has going for it is a brisk running time. There’s no space for lingering speeches or long-burning resentment. There’s not space for anything. Partly it’s because Ben-Hur doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be; it’s caught between classically imposing sword and sandals epic and frenetic modern actioner. The opening sums up the contradictions, weaving a ponderous Morgan Freeman voiceover and sweeping long shots of the ancient world together with skittish camerawork. As adopted brothers Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) prance around the countryside in a reckless horse race, the camera moves all over the place, tracking the action, jumping into the middle of it and clinging to the ground buffeted by clouds of dirt.
A certain visual incongruity is hardly the worst sin on display, though. That label is reserved for the botched emotional core managed with heavy-handed leadenness. Ben-Hur is a story of redemption, one that unfolds next to the life of Jesus, using his message to plunge the title character into the abyss and then finally redeem him. At first, he has it made; a rich Jewish prince living the life of luxury with his family and adopted Roman brother. Then Messala hears the call and dashes off to join the legions, disappearing for years. He reemerges in thrall to Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), and Judah’s refusal to side with the Romans over Jewish zealots leads to slavery and death for a once proud family.
The dark desire to punish Messala drives Judah through a spell in captivity and into the heady world of chariot racing. His estranged wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) warns him off a mad quest that will likely claim countless lives along the way, but he’s blinded. Unfortunately, Keith Clarke and John Ridley’s screenplay seems intent on having its cake and eating it. The narrative wants to both teach against the rift that drives the brothers to such extreme lengths while still glorying in his bloody revenge, running off in the exhilaration of an extended chariot race.
This unevenness is further hampered by the treatment of Messala. He’s cast as the villain without an ounce of nuance when in reality he’s not really any more in the wrong than Judah. There’s no empathizing with his position during an aborted assassination attempt that sees Judah protect the assassin, plunging Messala into an untenable position. They’re two men staying true to their beliefs, only here Messala’s beliefs are downgraded and largely ignored.
For all the action and family turmoil, Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur remains a lukewarm affair. Early on, when remarking on the amount of bloodshed he saw in service to Rome, Messala simply explains it’s more than he can describe. That’s the film in a nutshell. It can’t go deeper than the hard glossy surface. The contradictions and similarities between the positions of both brothers are swept away for a good-versus-evil battle.
The actors are anonymous too, hardly helping the situation. There’s no sense Huston and Kebbell either like or dislike each other. They barely seem to have a relationship at all, and no amount of awkward verbal jousting or stilted hugging can change that. Floating around in the background is Freeman going through the motions as Judah’s charioteer mentor, and Pontius Pilate, a big, bad villain entirely wasted. Asbæk is given nothing to do with the role, relegated to a couple of imperial looks. If he’s supposed to evoke anything at all the film fails. At least he occasionally gets to look important which is more than can be said for any of the female characters, left to scurry about in the background.
Then there’s the Jesus dilemma, played here by Rodrigo Santoro, and the desire to thrust him more fully into the narrative. In practice, this means little beyond the son of God occasionally stumbling across the path of the characters. Others talk of his wisdom or the threat he poses before it’s all forgotten for frantic mounted action. He’s not so much a holy ghost as an invisible one, skirting around the margins in a desperate bid to find a spiritual angle that’s lacking.
Perhaps more could have been salvaged, had the action been any good. As it is, Bekmambetov’s insistence on getting down and dirty with dusty low angles, shaky camerawork and quick cuts clashes horribly with attempts at imposing pullbacks. It’s a little like watching a hastily prepared trailer thrown together with shots from across the film. There’s no visual or narrative coherency. It leaves a series of set pieces strung together by small threads that aren’t exciting in themselves. They’re mostly disorientating and distracting, much like this failed film as a whole.
Ben-Hur comes with Blu-ray and DVD discs and includes a selection of short features looking at the source material, cast, abandoned ideas and deleted and extended scenes.