Ben-Hur Review


From the outset Timur Bekmambetov’s update of the multiple Oscar winning historical epic and iconic Ben-Hur feels like an unusual choice of film to re-imagine for a 21st Century audience.

Especially when, in all likelihood, most cinema viewers will be inclined to recall testosterone infused Russell Crowe’s steroid-injected Gladiator, the original Ben-Hur re-make if you will, far more readily than Lord Charlton of Heston and his penchant for perspiring profusely all over Jerusalem, the high seas and anywhere else he bloody well fancies.

Whilst not entirely unfaithful in plot to its decorated predecessor, Jack Huston’s Prince Judah Ben Hur is not so encumbered by the weight of religion on his shoulders. Judah is a diplomat, his singular goal to maintain the wealth and status of the house of Ben-Hur. In this version Toby Kebbel’s restless Messala, is his adopted Roman brother and horse racing rival from childhood.

Judah acts as a go-between with the Zealots, uprising against tyrannical Roman Rule, and his brother to try to keep the peace. Messala, having flown his adoptive family nest in search of adventure has now returned to Jerusalem a war hero and Roman captain.

An unwitting collaborator in an assassination attempt on his brother’s line manager Pontius Pilate, Judah and his family are seized, at Messala’s instruction, by the ruling Romans and made an example of. Judah is banished to a lifetime sentence of galley slavery, his family put to death on the cross.

In an enthralling battle sequence aboard his Roman galley prison Judah and his fellow slaves are whipped to exhaustion to reach ramming speed and engage with a fleet of Macedonian rebels. The manoeuvre is a disaster, the ship is sunk and Judah washes up on an unnamed coastline.

Here he meets Sheik Ilderim who provides sanctuary in exchange for Judah’s expertise in horse husbandry. Engaging Morgan Freeman, who also narrates the action Shawshank style, as Ilderim, a small time horse trainer and bookmaker, seems a slightly left-field piece of casting. But that does not stop him implausibly channelling Oliver Reed fused with Whoopi Goldberg for no immediately discernible reason.

Sheik Ilderim soon becomes fond of Judah and teaches him the tactical nuances of chariot racing, then assists him in his passage back to his homeland to wreak vengeance against Messala.

Bekmambetov’s commercially cautious approach is to lay on plenty of battle sequences; the chariot race denouement is something akin to a period drama version of a CG high speed car chase. A thrilling spectacle to watch perhaps but ultimately a little hollow. The lesson here, concentrate almost entirely on the action sequences and you invariably are left with little more than an action film.

Thus, scenes where we encounter Jesus of Nazareth, played admirably by Rodrigo Santoro, are force-fitted, as if to help establish a narrative and mood. These interludes amount to little more than a series of ill-thought pauses for reflection amidst the three dimensional flying, detached limbs.

So whilst this historical epic re-mastered for the digital gaming generation is enjoyable and at times gripping it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Ben-Hur 2016 is essentially The Greatest Story Ever Told, re-written as Death Race 2000… on horseback.

Frank Gardiner

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Dates ‘n stuff

September 2016