• Guy Jeffries

Ben-Hur Review


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Pilou Asbæk, Sofia Black-D'Elia, James Cosmo, Haluk Bilginer, Ayelet Zurer.

Score: Marco Beltrami

Okay, so how does one take a classic film that got nominated for 16 academy awards, winning 11, including best director, best actor and best cinematography; the only film to win 11 oscars all the way until Titanic and then Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King. The precious film is an epic three and a half hours long and lacked the special effects capabilities of today? How does one approach a studio and say, we want to remake Ben-Hur?

Joint venture Paramount and MGM thought it would be best to place a fairly unknown director, Timur Bekmambetov at the helm, who's probably best known for his Day Watch and Night Watch. And to only use Morgan Freeman as your A-list actor, no offence to Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell, (who happens to be one of my favourite actors) but they're not of the Charlton Heston status. It's a bold move on all counts but then is it a remake? Or just a different adaptation all together? Either way, it's going to be compared to the sensational '59 version.

For those not familiar with either the 1959 epic or the novel it's based on, it's possibly the most famous Christian story outside the bible ever written. Written by Lew Wallace and published in 1880, it's the first work of fiction to be blessed by the Pope, in this case Pope Leo XIII. It spurred it's first feature length adaptation, Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ back in 1925, which was a silent movie.

The story follows Juda Ben-Hur, (Jack Huston) a Jewish prince who grows up with his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell.) They're both very competitive with each other and have different ideals but they share the brotherly love and respect for one another. Messala enlists into the Roman army to travel and returns to Jerusalem many years later a true, glorified soldier of Rome. Things become complicated with the occupation/oppression of Rome in Jerusalem, zealots attacking the Romans giving a rather vicious Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) good reason to execute everyone who disobeys or insults them. The brothers are pitted against one another with Ben-Hur accused of treason and banished to become a slave only to return to avenge his family's house.

Morgan Freeman does what he does best and takes the role of the sheik, but this time as an African chariot racer. Now, the chariot race scene was epic in the previous film that included 15,000 extras, 18 chariots and spanned between five to ten weeks of filming and editing. A lot of stunts involved and actually resulted in Stephen Boyd (Messala) gaining skin burns and scars from being dragged around the arena by horse. This version is nicely done but isn't anywhere near the '59 footage; I don't think it even tops Ridley Scott's Gladiator. The CGI is unfortunately weak in small parts but overall, it's a good scene, it's certainly not terrible.

Some slight details missing but nothing overly important, the core of the story is very much intact but you can imagine, some 90mins have been lost from the original though it's not a bad thing, it's certainly a modern version of an epic classic, paraphrased nicely for younger audiences. But it's doesn't really hammer home to point, or at least the point Bekmambetov wanted to get across, this one being more about forgiveness as oppose to '59 being more about revenge. Vengefulness is very much part of the formula but the balance sways to forgiveness, especially with the scenes with Jesus. Unfortunately it lacks the emotional investment and I think it's due to missing dramatics or character development. I didn't seem to feel anything for any of the characters, apart from Jesus, played superbly by 300's God-King, Rodrigo Santoro. Jesus actually has some familiar and powerful lines this time round unlike the silent 59' version.

What did annoy me was the shaky-cam style, which seems really noticeable during the beginning of the film. Not sure if it was suppose to add realism to the scenes but it was disorienting and by the end, felt inconsistent. The battle ship scene was impressive but also felt separate from the rest of the movie in terms of style.

Marco Beltrami's score was good, very fitting for the film but only good, like the rest of the movie, just above average kinda good. Has that epic, triumph sound but the sometimes-out-of-key chimes reminded me a lot of Geinoh Yamashirogumi's work on Akira.

It's not the '59 epic but it's a good attempt, performances were strong but not enough. Not sure if having a-list actors would have made a difference, not even sure if it's made names of both Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell which is a shame of it doesn't and part of me thinks it's deliberate casting. Still a worthy watch and you can see where the 3D element would work. If you haven't seen the '59 this might be a fresh and enjoyable enough, I just feel it didn't quite cross the finish line, or deliver the message it was trying so hard to get across.

Running Time: 7

The Cast: 6

Performance: 7

Direction: 7

Story: 8

Script: 7

Creativity: 7

Soundtrack: 7

Job Description: 5

The Extra Bonus Point: 0

61% 6/10

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