Director: Timur Bekmanbetov
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Pilou Asbaek
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: September 9th
Hey Judah, haven’t we Ben Hur before? This is the fifth film adaptation of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a story most famously told in lavish fashion in William Wyler’s 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. Since then, in the 21st century alone in fact, there’s been a stage show, an animated version, and a Canadian miniseries starring some guy from The Vampire Diaries – and yet, here we go again with a blockbuster remake of this well-known tale. Going all the way back to 33BC in search of a story about a privileged white man in trouble, Ben-Hur tells the story of a Jewish prince (Huston), separated from his family and enslaved on a galley, who must defeat his disloyal adopted Roman brother Messala (Kebbell) in a chariot race to win his freedom. Along the way he finds God in the most literal way possible, as Rodrigo Santoro turns up in a supporting role as Jesus Christ, whose influence slowly but powerfully impacts Judah’s life.
The film has an intriguing pedigree, but the union of director Timur Bekmanbetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, Fresh Prince of Bel Air) ultimately produces a runt. The film somehow feels like a condensed, hastily-edited version of a larger story – to be fair, it is a full 90 minutes shorter than the 1959 version – while still being kind of a drag. It’s kind of like an early-evening festival set from a recently-reunified band. Ben-Hur tries to play the hits, as well as trying out new material to make itself exciting and relevant in 2016. But by trying to please all comers, the structure suffers, failing to balance the greater spectacles with the quieter moments, leading to a lot of boredom in the middle, and the necessarily-abbreviated runtime means that the story’s deeper themes of race, nationhood and religion are humoured only superficially. Similarly, after taking great care to set up Judah’s captive suffering, the film resolves it too quickly and too easily. By regaining almost everything he lost along with his spirituality and Christian faith, the ending effectively trivialises most of the things we were supposed to care about earlier in the film. This band is out of time in almost every way.
Bekmanbetov’s takes on Ben-Hur’s most iconic scenes, such as the galley scene and the chariot race, are often overly reliant on CGI and a disorienting, distracted editing style that passes for flair. The performances are limited by narrow, contrived and inorganic character development. You’re as well-off reading the length of Jack Huston’s hair and beard as an indicator of Judah Ben-Hur’s emotional state as anything he’s scripted to say or do; while Toby Kebbell seems utterly bored by his role as Messala. Rodrigo Santoro, best known for his roles as Xerxes in 300 and office dreamboat Karl in Love Actually, continues his streak of playing figures of worship. Although he tries to ground his Christ in humility, the greater focus on Jesus in this version is distracting, as the tone of his scenes is near-parodic in their po-faced reverence for the Lord.
Therein lies the rub. Ben-Hur is a depthless production; the only message specific to 2016 that resonates from this film is that producers wanted to make a lot of money from a faithful audience who’d turn up for their idol, and that little care needs to be taken in constructing a story around him. Whether that idol is Batman, Superman, or in this case, Jesus, it’s an ironically dispiriting message, and we all deserve better than Ben-Hur.