Ben-Hur Review: The classic story of Ben-Hur, which is well-known to the masses thanks to the many existing cinematic interpretations of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, including the multiple Oscar winning 1959 classic film. Wanted maker Timur Bekmambetov’s 2016 re-interpretation of the classic therefore brings nothing novel in terms of the story. But there is a lot of risk involved in this venture, considering the fact that it is a story that everyone knows all too well. Most film-goers have a tendency to trash any project that is even remotely associated with the term “remake”. Quite understandably then, Ben-Hur (2016 ) has been hailed, perhaps consciously, as a “re-adaptation,” or a “reimagining” of the classic by the makers, rather than blatantly be termed as a “remake”.
The film revolves around the story of betrayal and vengeance between two brothers, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell). The story of Ben-Hur has no places for complaints, but modern films often need much more than just a powerful story to succeed with a discerning audience, and Ben-Hur has utilized as many tropes as the makers could pack in to float the film, including epic scenes of blitz, one-on-one combat sequences, and of course, the famous chariot race which is what the whole film builds towards. But how these fair in making the film successful is another matter entirely.
The film stars Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell as Ben-Hur and Messala respectively, the two main characters of the film. Other cast members include:
Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, a wealthy Nubian gambler who provides Ben-Hur with the necessary training to become a charioteer in order to avenge his brother’s betrayal. This character was present in the 1959 film as well, but was not treated with nearly as much importance as it has been in the new film;
Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus Christ. The Son of God’s portrayal in the film is in accordance with the expectations of people of faith;
Ayelet Zurer as Ben-Hur’s mother;
Nazanin Boniadi as Esther, the love interest of Ben-Hur who is also a Jewish slave.
The 2016 reinterpretation has been penned by John Ridley, who has the acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave to his name, with Keith Clarke. The film weaves together elements of many of its cinematic predecessors, while focusing mainly on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. However, Bekmambetov implements a few changes in order to achieve his end, which involves a lot of eyeball grabbing action scenes involving bloodshed and massacre. The story is set between the years of 25 and 33 A.D. and the film plunges right into the kind of drama that Bekmambetov so heavily relies upon. What commences is an action packed tale of revenge between two hunks who were once like brothers, and everything is ultimately brought together as a Tale of the Christ. However, the plot can’t help but feel extremely hurried, and while the film does have a few outstanding sequences, like the one where the ship in which Ben-Hur has been kept as a slave is attacked, the heart of the film does not appear to be where it should be.
Morgan Freeman’s character has been heavily expanded in order to milk the most out of the sole veteran actor in the film, and he both narrates the story in his golden voice, as well as carries the film’s plot towards the climactic chariot race. He is also stripped off of all the humour that characterised the earlier versions of the character he plays.
The chariot race is what everyone looks forward to, and it certainly has its merits. Without going into any comparison with Wyler’s version, let us just say that it feels more epic than it looks, all thanks to the efforts of cinematographer Oliver Wood. But despite all its excesses, Ben-hur does handle the story of Christ with an unexpected amount of sensitivity. The scene of Christ’s death is one of the most solemn scenes in the whole movie.
The characters of Ben-Hur and Messala have been portrayed in a way that feels consistent with how Bekmambetov seems to have visualised the film. Both Ben-Hur and Messala come across as extremely unidimensional, especially when both are seen dabbling in their pursuit of hateful vengeance. We can blame Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell all we want for appearing extremely superficial, but the truth remains that the handling of their characters just feel inadequate. Morgan Freeman delivers a performance that is expected from him, but we’re sure his character could use a few more expressions to don. Rodrigo Santoro has the look of the typical modern-day Jesus Christ, but his is one of the few characters who has been treated with a dignified gravity.
Ben-Hur (2016) Release Date
Timur Bekmambetov’s film arrives at theatres tomorrow in the US, followed by the UK on September 7.
Ben-Hur (2016) Rating
We give this film a total of 2.5 out of 5, based on acting and execution. The cinematography is certainly worthy of praise, however, and so is the background score.
Watch the film if you like to experience different interpretations of the same subject. Most viewers are likely to be very well-acquainted with the story owing to Wyler’s 1959 remake, or the earlier silent versions. But if people have not had their fill of Ben-Hur’s story already after all the glorious existing versions on offer, our advice would be to try to refrain from making any judgements. And if they just can’t help, well, we warned you.