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Review: Ben-Hur (2016)

Ben-Hur (2016)

Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov

Premise: Based on the book by Lew Wallace. Set in Jerusalem in the time of Christ, a Jewish prince (Jack Huston) is wrongly accused of treason by his childhood friend, now an officer in the Roman army (Toby Kebbell). Years later he returns to his homeland with revenge in mind.

What Works: Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has been adapted to motion pictures several times, most famously in the 1959 version directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the title role. As with any remake, it behooves the filmmakers to justify their new version with a fresh take on the material. Although the core story remains the same, the 2016 version of Ben-Hur does have a unique visual style. Where the 1959 version had a mythical approach to the story, this Ben-Hur has a much more naturalistic look. The new Ben-Hur was directed Timur Bekmambetov who had previously directed Night Watch and Wanted and he is a great visual stylist. That’s best seen in the movie’s two main set pieces: the naval battle and the chariot race. After being wrongly accused of sedition, Ben-Hur is sentenced to the galleys, where he and other slaves must row for Roman warships. The naval battle is shot entirely from within the galleys and the action is staged in a visceral way. Also impressive is the chariot race. This has always been the centerpiece of Ben-Her adaptations and the chariot race of the 1959 version is a legendary set piece of Hollywood moviemaking. Leaving aside the fact that the 1959 version was done at full scale and the new version was accomplished with contemporary filmmaking technology, the 2016 chariot race meets and in some respects exceeds the famous 1959 version. It is vicious and kinetic and most importantly it doesn’t look digital; the chariot race retains the grit and physicality that makes it exciting. Another area where this version of Ben-Hur exceeds the 1959 version is in the portrayal of Messala Severus. This film dramatizes the backstory between Severus and Ben-Hur and portrays the Roman leader as a much more conflicted character than in the earlier version.

What Doesn’t: The two major action set pieces of 2016’s Ben-Hur stand out in a film that is otherwise pretty boring. The story of Ben-Hur is a complex character piece in which a man falls from a high social station and becomes obsessed with revenge which gradually gives way to forgiveness and compassion. That story structure is challenging because it requires the conflict to subside rather than escalate into a climax. The emotional payoff of the film is not in the conquest of an adversary but in Ben-Hur’s internal transformation. This film doesn’t accomplish that. Its failure is partly to do with the plotting—there aren’t enough character beats that lead to that transformation—but it is also a result of miscasting in the lead roles. Ben-Hur and Severus are played by Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell, respectively, and neither of these actors are interesting to watch. Both characters require a rich internal life that neither Huston nor Kebbell seem capable of creating. For that matter the filmmakers don’t seem especially interested in forgiveness, which is the crux of the story. The movie doesn’t shirk from the religious content but Jesus always seems like he walked in from the set of another movie. This becomes especially clear in the film’s conclusion which tacks on a reconciliation that is stupid and disingenuous. The storytelling of Ben-Hur is quite clumsy especially when it deals with expository information. The film casts Morgan Freeman in a supporting role as the sponsor of Ben-Hur’s chariot race and, of course, Freeman is roped into providing voice over that’s unnecessary and pretentious.

Bottom Line: The 2016 version of Ben-Hur is boring and largely unnecessary. The chariot race is worth a look by action enthusiasts (and by action filmmakers) but this film suffers from bad casting and worse storytelling.   

Episode: #609 (August 28, 2016)