Hollywood is a bit like Ancient Rome, keeping us in bread and circuses for well over a century. In that time, multiple adaptations of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ have been brought to the screen, most notably Fred Niblo’s 1925 silent version and the more famous 1959 epic from William Wyler. Timur Bekmambetov’s BEN-HUR comes with the modern sensibilities you’d expect, but puts the “Christ” back into the story by switching up the typical revenge narrative for something more positive.
Eschewing the census and the manger that opened previous filmed versions of the Biblical tale, Bekmambetov dives straight into the famed chariot race between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell). Flashing back to 8 years earlier, we watch the duo grown up together in the household of nobleman Ben-Hur, before his adoptive brother and Roman officer Messala falsely accuses Judah of treason. Surviving for years in servitude as a slave, Ben-Hur is determined to return to Rome and challenge Messala to save his family and win his freedom.
The basic narrative of the first half of BEN-HUR is wholly familiar, so it becomes most fascinating in the departures. On the surface, it’s the nature of Judah’s return to Jerusalem that differs slightly, giving the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) a much bigger part to play in the lead-up to the climax. Thematically there’s a difference too, shifting Ben-Hur’s thirst for vengeance to a redemption story about the power of forgiveness. Infused with allegorical stand-ins for modern debates around religious freedom and zealotry, racial slavery and colonisation, BEN-HUR ultimately offers an alternative to “an eye for an eye.” This is perhaps due to the significantly increased presence of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro), who is not only seen but heard, another place the film departs from the 1925 and 1959 films.
The focus remains on the bonds between the two adoptive brothers, far more satisfying than a purely combative relationship. Huston (Boardwalk Empire) is arguably a more convincing Judah Ben-Hur than Charlton Heston, a combination of his emotional rawness and enthusiasm. Similarly, the accomplished Kebbell finds the right balance between hubris and hurt to become a sympathetic anti-villain. The womenfolk are still sidelined, even if they are integral to the story. Ayelet Zurer is classy but perfunctory as Ben-Hur’s mum Naomi, although Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) is definitely more visible and vocal than in prior outings, giving the film a rounder character base. Only the familiarity of Freeman’s narrative voice takes us out the fantasy for a while, although his dreadlocked presence is a welcome one.
Even with modern special effects and impossible backgrounds, the scale of BEN-HUR is still dwarfed by its predecessors. The lush 65mm Eastmancolor of Wyler’s film is frequently replaced by the claustrophobia of close-ups with handheld cameras. This works magnificently on occasion, especially during the ship battle sequence, shot entirely with the immediacy of a below deck point-of-view. The chariot race, clocking in at around 10 minutes like the two races before it, is as tense and brutal as any other. Here the use of CG affords us the peace of mind that no horses were harmed in the filming, making every fall, stumble and crash a spectacle worthy of the Roman circus.
Bekmambetov’s intention is to restore some of Lew Wallace’s original meaning to BEN-HUR, steering it away from what he saw as the “revenge and miracles” focus of the 1959 Wyler film. In a strange way, the film becomes a reminder that religious and cultural intolerance only comes from the fringes of both sides, but that shouldn’t make us lose sight of our shared humanity. It may not be the most commercial message for an otherwise excellent action film, but it is certainly one of the most hopeful.
2016 | US | DIR: Timur Bekmambetov | WRITERS: Keith Clarke, John Ridley | CAST: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Morgan Freeman | DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes