Review by Cinematicus Rex
Another year another reboot of a Hollywood classic!
Director Timur Bekmambetov does his best to bring some CGI pep to the action and some postmodern relevance to an unremarkable script by John Ridley and Keith Clarke in his remake of William Wyler’s bum-numbing 1959 sword-and-sandal epic, Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston. This time Jack Huston is in the chariot hot-seat and, mercifully for audiences, the bumpy ride is only 2 hours long.
The story, set in Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 25 AD, centres on Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, and his adopted Roman brother and BFF, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). The two are inseparable chums and indelible sporting rivals. When Judah is seriously injured falling from his horse during one of their races, Messala carries him home and waits desperately at Judah’s bedside awaiting his recovery.
When he does, we are shown glimpses of the placid private life of the household, emphasizing that all share an enlightened (almost anachronistic, one might guess) attitude toward cultural and religious difference. We witness Messala’s attraction for Judah’s sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia), which is mutual, and likewise Judah’s devotion to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), the daughter of a much loved servant.
Shopping at the markets, the latter pair casually overhear what Judah notes is a “very progressive” maxim on forgiveness out of the mouth of Jesus, plying his trade nearby as a carpenter at this time. (At this point I couldn’t help thinking how progressive the politically neutral Judah already must have been to know that… but I dawdle…)
Of course, that Jesus is NOT the centre of attention but just loitering on the periphery of the action is the story’s great and original dramatic conceit. Our protagonists, collectively and individually, are quite naturally fixated on their own experiences of unprecedented upheaval but something truly momentous of universal historical and spiritual import is transpiring and they do not notice it until the end.
To get us and the characters to that realization, our chums must fall out and hit rock bottom individually. Many lives will be lost unnecessarily and others (especially the women of the house) will be wasted, until love returns to overcome pride and ego. Then all will reflect on the prescient wisdom of that carpenter who by this time is being hung on a cross.
In between times Judah is convicted of sedition for harbouring an injured Jewish zealot who repays him by taking a pot-shot at the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) from inside Judah’s family home. His mother and sister are locked up and Judah is sentenced to die serving in a slave galley.
The naval warfare scenes are mostly splendid except, in this reviewer’s opinion, for too much shaky hand-held camera work, which achieves not so much the desired gut-churning action effect as annoyance from being bitch-slapped with an incomprehensible blur of colour.
Anyway, ship-wrecked at last after 5 years, Judah finds his way into the employ of Nubian race-horse trader and gambler, Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) and soon he is on the road home to find his family and for a showdown with Messala who put them all away and has risen through the military ranks to be Pilate’s champion charioteer. Finally, we are headed for the track and, suffice it to say, the gripping finale delivers.
For the most part, visually unexceptional but, technically speaking, this is not a bad film. The plentiful CGI (ships, stadiums, crowds) was not obtrusively obvious or clunky.
As mentioned, the story pitches a series of moral and ethical dilemmas at its characters but these are not resolved. The female characters were all attractive and interesting, even feisty, but not developed. We get a whiff of their individuality but their stories were subordinated to the main (testosterone fuelled) narrative.
I feel that an opportunity for a richer cinematic experience was thereby missed. I am still wondering why this story required a 21st century update. Its relevance to the incomprehensibly complex Middle East situation is hard to fathom.
If anything, this version seems to say cynically – through the world-weary observations of Pilate, who has carried the can since 33 AD for the Crucifixion and all the other carry on – that virtues like compassion are of no social value and in fact might represent a danger to the interests of State which prefers that we fight amongst ourselves and eat out of the palm of its hand. Bread and circuses!
All it ever takes is the odd distraction with a treat and we forget who we are and what we were cranky about. If that was the film’s coded message for the Palestinian question (and I can’t imagine it would be), then that people’s future is going to be even bleaker than their recent past.