Why, oh why, did they have to remake Ben-Hur? It made sense to adapt Lew Wallace’s book in the 20s and 50s when the Bible film was an accepted genre of American filmmaking. And while there was a brief resurgence in swords-and-sandals epics in the early 2000s, with Gladiator and Troy, there doesn’t seem to be much demand for this to return.
So, with this reimagining of this particular tale, it’s hard to know who exactly it is aimed at. The older generation still hold fond memories of William Wyler’s 1959 version, whereas the younger generation will likely see this hyper-religious tale of revenge and redemption as desperately untrendy. (In fact, they already have – the film is shaping up to be one of the biggest flops of the year.)
But intentions aside, does this Ben-Hur actually work? Well, the story is so solid that it’s hard to screw it up – though director Timur Bekmambetov (of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter fame) tries his best to ruin it. Gone is the fascinating homosexual subtext between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), his Roman friend-come-rival. Here, Messala is the adopted brother, whom Judah likes but his mother doesn’t – it’s never really explained why. Messala goes off and joins the Roman army, and Judah marries the family slave Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). When Messala returns, the film goes out of its way to rationalise his betrayal, as a subplot about violent zealots is crammed in. Judah is sent to the galleys, his family imprisoned, he vows to have revenge, and the next hour is spent waiting impatiently for the climactic chariot race to happen.
It’s a little unfair to compare Ben-Hur to its predecessors. Indeed, the 1959 version is far from perfect, but it does earn the title of an ‘epic’, largely through Charlton Heston’s muscular, alpha-male performance, which could support the weight of an enormous budget. Jack Huston is just too thin for the part. He’s an acceptable actor, but he’s not a movie star.
And in spite of the occasional moment of tension and spectacle, this is the major problem with Ben-Hur. It’s too flat, it’s too fake and, at 123 minutes, it’s too fast, like a miniseries on fast-forward. The film is summed up by Morgan Freeman’s approach to his thankless role as Judah’s circus trainer: humourless, cheesy, and motivated by money.
Ben-Hur is released nationwide on 7th September 2016.
Watch the trailer for Ben-Hur here: