Early in 1st century Jerusalem, when a teenage Zealot attacks the Roman army entering the city, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a young Jewish nobleman, is accused of harbouring Zealots by his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), now an officer in the Roman army. Messala destroys Judah's family and enslaves Judah. After five years as a galley slave, Judah's ship is sunk and he escapes. Under the patronage of a chariot race entrepreneur Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge in the chariot race against Messala, but after witnessing the crucifixion, he extends forgiveness to Messala.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With no disrespect to the publisher, this remake of Ben-Hur is like a Reader's Digest version, stripped down to its plot points and made with a combination of spectacle and old fashioned Christian schmaltz. Director Timur Bekmambetov, a robust filmmaker known for the vampire films Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) as well as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), does the material a disservice by making it look like any other contemporary film - except the production design is inspired by notions of how the 1st century Middle East might look.
His 'modern' approach includes overtly hand held camera work, permitting dialogue to include 'OK', white riding trousers for Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) and casting Morgan Freeman as Ilderim, originally a Sheik in the novel. A Sheik in Arabia is somewhat less distracting than a black American posing as a Sheik. To add to this error of judgment, he allows the film's hair designer to give Freeman dreadlocks. Bekmambetov's other key casting decisions are also problematic: neither Jack Huston nor Toby Kebbell have the screen gravitas required for their roles.
The screenplay is perfunctory, skipping like a stone on a pond over the key elements (eg the crucifixion, complete with heavenly choir, the women with leprosy who are miraculously cured, rapidly) and the drama feels forced, like some old TV drama from the swords and sandals cupboard, a sensation not helped by the overly romanticized Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) who oozes compassion and brotherly love to a fault. Jesus was not a wimp.
The result is a strangely uninvolving film - I say strangely because the story is a powerful one and William Wyler's 1959 original with Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd was certainly involving, moving and powerful. And it won 11 Oscars.
Of course we are going to compare the films - those of us who have seen the original. For those who have not seen it, this film will possibly suffice on the strength of the bone crunching chariot race and the exotic spectacle of the ancient world and its barbarities. Although the way the filmmakers end the chariot race in this remake is far less dramatically gripping and limits the impact of the film's redemptive scene.
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BEN-HUR (2016) (M)
CAST: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Haluk Bilginer, Pilou Asbaek, Rodrigo Santoro, Moises Arias, Yasen Atour, David Walmsley, Morgan Freeman, James Cosmo
PRODUCER: Mark Burnett, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin
DIRECTOR: Timur Bekmambetov
SCRIPT: Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley (novel by Lew Wallace)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Oliver Wood
EDITOR: Dody Dorn, Richard Francis-Bruce, Bob Murawski
MUSIC: Marco Beltrami
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Naomi Shohan
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 25, 2016