Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur is a sword and sandals movie that strives for epic status. The film does not reach it, in spite of trying.
Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy prince living in Jerusalem with his family and adopted brother Messela Severus. When Severus joins the Roman army in an attempt to elevate his position, Judah and his family face unintended consequences…
Ben-Hur is based on Lew Wallace’s religious novel of the nineteenth century. Viewers familiar with the 1959 film adaptation will notice a few changes. It is clear that the filmmakers have realised how pivotal the chariot race scene is, foreshadowing it in the opening sequence. In this version of Ben-Hur, this important scene is moved to a later sequence, to give a climactic feel. However, this gives less time for the staid reconciliation scenes. This final scenes jar with the sense of feeling immediately before.
The Christian message is pushed throughout the film, as expected. However, the overt nature of this feels forced rather than natural. In straddling the line between Christian entertainment and Hollywood blockbuster, Ben-Hur does not really satisfy either of the camps. Jesus is a more prominent figure in this adaptation. Unfortunately, some of the sequences are more laughable than spiritual.
There are some redeeming qualities in the film, even if the redemption in the narrative is unconvincing. The rowing sequences works very well to depict chaos. The frequent cuts, close-ups, and sound design combine well to convey a confusing and dangerous situation. Early scenes do a decent job of portraying the friendship between Judah and Messela. The chariot sequence is one of the film’s more exciting moments. It is marred by some abysmal dialogue and the overuse of CGI.
Jack Huston is a good actor, yet is constrained by a lacklustre screenplay here. Toby Kebbell is well cast as Messela. Morgan Freeman takes everything in his stride, whilst Nazanin Boniadi comes across a bit stiff in some scenes.
Ben-Hur may appeal as a curiosity watch; viewers may wonder why and how the story has been remade. Beyond this, it holds little appeal.