Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Renowned For Sound

For the latest music reviews and interviews

Film Review – Ben-Hur

3 min read

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, Ben-Hur is the fifth cinematic adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 epic historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The fact that Bekmambetov’s film more closely adheres to the plot and themes of Wallace’s novel than William Wyler’s classic, Charlton Heston-starring 1959 adaptation did is not a mark in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter director’s favour. Produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the husband and wife team behind the History Channel’s 2013 miniseries The Bible, the 2016 adaptation retains a significant subplot from the source material involving the final years of Jesus of Nazareth that Wyler largely excised from his film. Though not terrible in and of itself, this subplot is poorly integrated into the larger narrative by Bekmambetov and screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), resulting in occasionally clumsy storytelling.

Jack Huston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince living in Roman-occupied Jerusalem roughly thirty years after the birth of Christ and Toby Kebbell plays Messala, Judah’s adoptive brother and later adversary. The film’s early scenes do a good job of establishing the competitive but affectionate nature of Judah and Messala’s relationship and a lousy job of explaining the family dynamics of the larger Ben-Hur clan. Based on the vague dialogue and universally lavish costuming it’s not immediately clear that Judah’s romantic interest Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) is a servant, or that Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia) are Judah’s mother and sister respectively. There’s also some romantic tension between Tirzah and Messala that partially motivates his sudden decision to leave the family and pursue wealth and honour as a soldier in the Roman army.

Following Messala’s departure the film flashes forward several years. Judah is now married to Esther and steadfastly refusing to become involved in either side of the growing conflict between the local populace and Roman occupiers. His firm commitment to neutrality is shattered when Messala, now serving under Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), returns to Jerusalem and begs his help ensuring Pilate’s safety during a parade through the city. Judah promises to speak to local leaders but after a young zealot sheltering in the Ben-Hur household attempts to assassinate the Roman governor Judah is accused of the crime. Ignoring his foster brother’s pleas for mercy, Messala orders the crucifixion of Naomi and Tirzah and sentences Judah to slavery. Rodrigo Santoro’s Jesus of Nazareth makes one of his brief appearances in the narrative to show Judah compassion in his moment of despair.

Ben-Hur still

Judah spends the next five years chained to the oar of a Roman galley. The bland charisma of Huston’s performance as the handsome, privileged prince in Ben-Hur’s first act instantly transforms into something infinitely more magnetic now that filth, lank hair and horrifying scars mar his good looks. He has the terrible, vacant eyes of the truly traumatized and the solitary purpose of his daily existence seems to be survival. He manages to escape the galley during a brutal, stomach-churning naval battle on the Ionian Sea, only to be recaptured by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy Nubian who is travelling to Jerusalem to compete in the chariot races hosted by Pontius Pilate.

When Ilderim mentions that Pilate’s champion charioteer is a man named Messala Judah finds a new, galvanizing purpose; vengeance. The Sheik helps arrange the inevitable, climatic showdown between the two brothers in a manic, ten-minute chariot race sequence that occasionally borders on total incoherence, though Bekmambetov shows admirable and somewhat surprising restraint in not drawing it out for so long that the tension dissipates entirely. In its last ten minutes the film makes an abrupt and largely implausible thematic turn away from vengeance and towards faith and forgiveness. In fact, the only redeeming thing in that final slice of Ben-Hur is the absolute meal Pilou Asbæk makes out of his characters final, epic line.

All in all, Ben-Hur isn’t a terrible film. The costumes, locations and lead actors are lovely to look at and Huston and Kebbell are so talented that you almost don’t notice how flat and underdeveloped their respective characters actually are. Despite what the dire opening box office might suggest, there’s enough to enjoy in Ben-Hur that most viewers should find it a perfectly adequate way to pass 123 minutes.