Ben-Hur, done that. Timur Bekmambetov’s reimagining of a Charlton Heston classic does next to nothing to justify its own existence.
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has been adapted for the screen no less than four times, most famously in 1959 by director William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the towering lead role. Whilst Wyler’s film went on to sweep 11 Academy Awards and, adjusted for inflation, is still the 14th highest-grossing film of all time, this weak, watered-down 2016 reimagining isn’t even fit to sweep the floors of the deserted cinema that it’ll no doubt be playing to.
The plot follows a disgraced nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), who is forced into slavery by the Romans after he’s betrayed by his adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). After years of tortuous work on a galley, Judah returns to Jerusalem to exact his revenge, challenging Messala to a vicious chariot race where there are no rules.
The most galling issue with 2016’s Ben-Hur is the camerawork; Bekmambetov and his DOP Oliver Wood treat the epic prose with none of the reverence or spectacle that it deserves. Almost every scene is framed with shaky handy-cam and mid-length to tight close-ups, making the dialogue and performances incredibly hard to follow. Don’t even get me started on the use of Go-Pros during the chariot race; they’re either forehead-mounted or buried in the sand as the chariots whoosh past, almost like you’re watching a Formula One race or a snowboarding montage on YouTube. Only on a few occasions do they pull back to soak in the sweeping spectacle of Roman-occupied Jerusalem.
Ben-Hur also lacks a commanding presence in the dual lead roles. Huston and Kebbell are doing the best they can with what they’ve got, but what this film really needed was someone like Christian Bale or Russell Crowe to own those sandals and rise above the middling plot with authority and gravitas. Morgan Freeman’s role as a wealthy Nubian sheik who nurses Judah back to health doesn’t improve matters. Underneath what is probably the worst hairpiece this side of a Donald Trump rally, Freeman’s hypnotic performance screams ‘easy paycheck’.
Credit where credit is due, the climactic chariot race isn’t a complete disaster; it’s excessively digitized and marred by some choppy editing, but at least it delivers a shred of excitement and drama. Like Wyler’s version, it runs for nearly 10 minutes and serves as the centrepiece for the whole film. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film is so excruciatingly second-rate and bloated, with a soporific second act that just plods along like an old and overloaded pack horse.
The Verdict: 3/10
2016’s Ben-Hur is a misguided affair that fatally misunderstands who or what it wants to be, offering practically nothing to distinguish itself from its formidable legacy. Hamstrung by a weak screenplay, jarring direction and a severe lack of charisma or presence from its core cast members, the whole thing resembles a pale imitation of a much better movie that we’ve all seen before.
Ben-Hur is in cinemas across Australia now