When it comes to remakes you have a hard enough time selling people on revisiting a story, let alone remaking a record Oscar winning landmark of cinema. True the Charlton Heston epic was a remake itself of the 1925 version of the Ben-Hur story but really was anyone crying out for a new version at all? Well, that is the thing, despite the perception, Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur is not so much a remake as it is a new adaptation of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ (1880). This novel has not only inspired the 1959 landmark film and the aforementioned ‘20s silent picture but 2 other film adaptations of the story too. So Ben-Hur (2016) is not a remake of a cinematic classic, but with all this background explained, is this re-visit worth the trip to the cinema? Well, not really.
Set back in the time of Christ, in Roman occupied Jerusalem, this version of Ben-Hur tells the story of Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Feeling forced to seek his own path and come home a hero, Messala heads to join the Roman army and year’s later returns and seeks the aid of Judah in ensuring the safe passage of the Roman general Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) through Jerusalem. However when a zealot strikes, Judah and his family are caught in the ensuing tensions and Messala sides with his Roman brethren, as Judah is sent into slavery and his family suffers an unknown fate. The years go by and all that keeps Judah going is the hatred of what his brother became and the chance to survive and get revenge. This chance soon arrives in the shape of a chariot race, as Judah returns home and takes refuge with the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who is involved in the charioteering sport.
Like all historical epics, it is a bit of a bugger to describe swiftly in one short synopsis but suffice to say the trailer pretty much is the film. Surrounded by the classic biblical tale of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro), this film is more taken on with the age-old tale of brotherly (or half brotherly) dispute and the pursuit of revenge. And while this new take on the story comes complete with some neat pacifist themes, uncomfortably prevalent for our intolerant times, this new version of the story is lacking the same punch as others that have come before. Director Timur Bekmambetov is an interesting filmmaker with an eye for visual energy and an eager involvement with unusual projects. However in this case, he feels to really be doomed to failure, as association with the Heston picture plagues the film with unreachable heights and even on its own merits; this fails to muster any memorable energy and momentum and feels strangely ambivalent.
Hardly terrible, in fact some may enjoy the chariot set piece and the odd genuinely effective scene here and there (the crucifixion, Sheik Ilderim’s gamble with the Romans), but the film cannot escape the pointlessness of its existence. The ground it walks is well trodden and the shaky and uncertain camerawork ensures certain action scenes are a bit indecipherable. Plus the characters, aside from the central group, never feel particularly distinctive and the faith aspect of the original novel is wheeled out every now and then and comes to feel a bit tacked on to a film that practically is all about the chariot racing and a slave’s revenge story. Effective in bursts, the problem is Keith Clarke and John Ridley’s script feels tonally uneven and the film itself is so forgettably middling, you find yourself struggling to recollect much of it, as nice as some settings are, soon after viewing.
If you have never read the text or seen a previous adaptation, then by all means try this new take as you may get a lot more from it than others but be warned, this is an unevenly assembled would-be epic that does not really do enough to justify a new take on this story. The acting is decent with Huston and Kebbell pretty much carrying the entire film on their shoulders and Freeman is an enjoyable presence but it all feels so feeble compared to the power of the story itself. Whatever your creed, race or faith, you cannot deny that religion has played a hand in some great tales and Ben-Hur is one of those stories, sadly this new version lacks the conviction to stand out from the countless other historical action epics. It is a really average movie; dragged down a notch by just how little faith the studio has clearly had in it and how forgettable it all is when all is said and done.
BEN-HUR / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV / SCREENPLAY: KEITH CLARKE, JOHN RIDLEY / STARRING: JACK HUSTON, TOBY KEBBELL, RODRIGO SANTORO, MORGAN FREEMAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 5/10