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Film Reviews Ben-Hur is an expensive lesson in how not to make a modern biblical epic

Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur from Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.

Photo credit: Philippe Antonello/Philippe Antonello

1 out of 4 stars

Title
Ben-Hur
Written by
Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley
Directed by
Timur Bekmambetov
Starring
Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi
Genre
Drama
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2016

As the new Ben-Hur unspools into insignificance and sentimentality, there are fleeting moments that suggest someone behind this $100-million movie was actually thinking hard about how to replay a schlocky biblical epic for a secular audience in 2016.

Drawn from the 19th-century American bestseller by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur is a tale of revenge and forgiveness that cleverly intersects with the story of the Crucifixion. In the 1959 movie version, that classic cast-of-thousands blockbuster, Christ's face never appeared; all you saw was the back of his head or his hand. It was an elegant solution, but by the end of the movie the effect of all those enraptured faces gazing into the unseen Christ's became saccharine.

In this remake, as though to stress his approachable humanity over his awesome divinity, Christ is a character – played by the Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro – who interacts briefly with others, preaching love to Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) early in the film or saving a man from stoning in the street. But he's also a bland character and by the end of this new version, the Crucifixion scene feels limp and a bit silly as Santoro mutters to himself, "Father, forgive them …"

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This is an emotionally unconvincing remake lead by the Kazakh action director Timur Bekmambetov (previously known for the vampire franchise Night Watch) and written by Keith R. Clarke alongside the veteran screenwriter and novelist John Ridley. Its story may be enough to satisfy the devout Christian viewers on whom its box office will depend; the execution is unlikely to sway the general audience that would be needed to make it a hit. Sadly, the new Ben-Hur is a project so undermined by inelegant writing, erratic direction and indifferent acting, that its few good ideas inevitably collapse, leaving a remake that can really only justify its existence with the truth that chariot races look great in CGI and Morgan Freeman looks great in dreads.

Freeman plays Ilderim, an impressive African trader and horseman who backs Ben-Hur in the chariot races and proves one of the scriptwriters' smarter updates: in the 1959 version, the character was minor and portrayed as a stereotypically wily Arab. Striding around in magnificent robes and waist-length greying dreadlocks, Freeman brings grandeur to the role and mainly manages to instill the same tone into his spoken performance of a script that is riddled with modern lingo. (At one point, Ilderim calms bolting horses by saying "Okay, okay." At another, he tells Ben-Hur, "Your situation is not unique.")

The younger members of the cast have much less luck making any of this sound as though it might have been spoken originally in Hebrew, Aramaic or Latin in AD 33, even if the casting department has decided that soft English accents are going to do the trick. As Esther, Nazanin Boniadi is merely pleasant playing the beautiful servant who, in this version, marries Ben-Hur early in the action. And, disastrously, she remains only that when she becomes a follower of Christ, lacking the remarkable ability to portray good sense and true spirituality that the Israeli actress Haya Harareet once brought to the role. Meanwhile, the characters of Ben-Hur's mother (Ayelet Zurer) and sister (Sofia Black-D'Elia) are swept to the corners of the film: if the processionally slow 1959 version returned far too often to that leper colony, here Bekmambetov's dismissive hand robs the subplot of drama and suspense.

On the other hand, the scriptwriters have wisely added complexity to both the role of the Zealots, the Jewish rebels who were attacking the Romans, and to the dilemma of the Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell), caught between his adoptive Jewish family and his command. In one of the more consistent performances in the film, Kebbell is able to suggest the character's initial agonies and his eventual hardening even if Bekmambetov proves ludicrously off-handed about the process as skims his way through a series of gratuitous Roman battle scenes.

And then there is our hero, Judah Ben-Hur. It is possible that a truly powerful performance in the role, work that focused on the character's development through his betrayal by Messala, his simmering hatred and ultimate forgiveness, would transform Ben-Hur from melodrama to drama. Instead, we get leading men who give us the flavour of the decade: in the 1950s, it was jut-jawed machismo and emotional repression in Charlton Heston's wooden version of the man. Today, it's all smooth-cheeked sensitivity from the insipid Huston, who makes Ben-Hur look like the kind of guy who would offer you water at Burning Man, not Calvary.

That leaves us with five years as a galley slave, a sequence that is deftly handled by Bekmambetov, and five minutes in the Roman circus. Yes, it's a spectacular setting and the chariot race is often engaging as Freeman's Ilderim (rather improbably positioned in the bowels of the circus) yells out instructions from the sidelines to a Huston who mainly seems surprised to find himself at the reins of four charging beasts while a bloodthirsty crowd calls for victory. Often it's genuinely thrilling, always it's noisy, sometimes it's confusing.

It is certainly not enough to redeem this Ben-Hur, which ends with an icky reunion in which young people who speak the language of Northern California in the accents of South London embrace in circle of loving absolution somewhere in the middle of the Judean desert. Forgiveness is a great virtue but it can only take a moviegoer so far.

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