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Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) and his adoptive Roman brother Messala (Kebbell, above) are close friends and accomplished horsemen, often racing across plains on their steeds. Later on in the movie, Ben-Hur is taken in by Ilderim (Freeman), a Nubian sheik.

BT_20160819_GEBENHURNEW_2445880.jpg
Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur (Huston, above left) and his adoptive Roman brother Messala (Kebbell) are close friends and accomplished horsemen, often racing across plains on their steeds. Later on in the movie, Ben-Hur is taken in by Ilderim (Freeman, above right), a Nubian sheik.

Ben-Hur remake misfires, not inspires

Viewers will ponder the point of the whole exercise; regrettably, the answer is all too obvious.
Aug 19, 2016 5:50 AM

REMAKING a classic film is a risky business, not least because - apart from having to justify its very existence - a new film is bound to be compared to the original and held up to closer-than-usual scrutiny even as flaws in the earlier film are excused. It also brings up the obvious question: why even bother? Imagine someone proposing a remake of, say, The Godfather.

Ben-Hur, updated and reimagined for the Fast and Furious generation, isn't a terrible film, but it pales in comparison to the multi-Oscar-winning 1959 version directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston. Both movies, along with a 1925 silent version, are based on Lew Wallace's 1880 book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Heston was an actor whose reputation and physical stature - he also played Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956) - far exceeds any of the actors in the new Ben-Hur, while the film he made, featuring 10,000 extras and an extravagant budget, served as the standard-bearer for sword-and-sandal spectaculars of the era.

The new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, wasn't short on budget (reported to be in the US$100-million range) and also has the benefit of modern technology, but it lacks the epic nature and sheer scale of the original.

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Most of the scenes are filmed in short-to-medium shots common in television series, and the climactic chariot race (even in 3-D) doesn't convey the same sense of grandeur and excitement of the original - not surprising, given that current generations of viewers have been bred on all manner of car-chases and stunt-filled action sequences.

At two-hours long, the new film falls some distance short of the 1959 version's three-and-a-half-hour running time. As a consequence the narrative is less fully fleshed out; apart from an effective sea battle and less-than-thrilling chariot race, there is a distinct B-movie feel to the proceedings.

The basic storyline remains the same: wealthy Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) are close friends and accomplished horsemen, often racing across the nearby plains on their trusty steeds. Messala has eyes for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D'Elia) but leaves the family fold in order to make a name for himself. Several years later he returns to Roman-occupied Jerusalem as a high-ranking officer, an adversary rather than friend.

By wisely choosing not to compete with the machismo projected by Heston, the modern-day Ben-Hur gives its title character mere mortal status, focusing instead on other aspects that Wyler's version glossed over. For example Judah's love interest, the slave girl Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), has a more prominent role, as does Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), whose face was never shown in the earlier film.

Judah's compassion and his decision to harbour a zealot ends in disaster - he is accused of treason, stripped of his privileges and sentenced to years of slave labour aboard a Roman ship. He survives a shipwreck and is taken in by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy Nubian sheik with Bob-Marley dreadlocks and a passion for wagering on chariot races. It's not long before Judah and Messala face off - white stallions versus black, just to emphasise who the good guys are - in the Roman circus, racing under the watchful eye of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek).

Despite a hasty ending that conveniently ties up loose ends, depicting a crucifixion and a miracle or two, the film's message of faith and forgiveness over hatred and vengeance rings through loud and clear. Still, this Ben-Hur is messy and misguided, misfiring instead of inspiring. Long before the end, viewers will ponder the point of the whole exercise: regrettably, the answer is all too obvious.

Rating: C