Ben-Hur review: “decent popcorn entertainment, but hardly epic”

It's chariots at the ready, as Jack Huston steps into Charlton Heston's sandals to re-create one of the most beloved blockbusters of old

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★★★

While there is nothing particularly awful about this remake of the 1959 ancient-world classic, the brash, breakneck style – obviously geared towards a young, modern audience – renders it less epic.

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At best this version of Ben-Hur (also filmed in 1925, from Lew Wallace’s novel) is decent popcorn entertainment with an exciting re-creation of the famous chariot race that, surprisingly, avoids looking too much like a video game.

In the title role, Jack Huston (British grandson of director John Huston) lacks the imposing presence of Charlton Heston, but he does cut a dashing figure in his own quiet way. He makes his feelings known without grandstanding, as Judah Ben-Hur evolves gradually into the type of man who can withstand the pull of wild horses and steer his way to victory.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-RSgSqnIxE

The chariot race is foreshadowed from scene one, right at the start line, when Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell) promises to kill Judah Ben-Hur. In flashback these men are brothers (they were just friends in the original story), an idea taken literally with Messala having been adopted into Ben-Hur’s family in Judaea. They’re blue-bloods and the point is made, too, about how removed they are from the rabble who are growing ever more discontent with Roman rule.

In one of the modern touches, there are repeated references to the “zealots” who threaten the status quo. When Messala begins to question his own place in the household – and why he can never win the hand of Judah’s sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia) – it spurs a tour of duty with the Roman army that gives him new purpose, at odds with that of the Jewish prince.

Director Timur Bekmambetov (the man behind high-concept action flicks Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) simmers the pot that turns Messala against Judah without delving deep enough into his inferiority complex. When Messala returns (bearing the gift of an old toy chariot), it is Judah’s refusal to hand over a rebel that lands him in the galley of a Roman warship, rowing under pain of death.

Bekmambetov films the ensuing battle with a Grecian fleet in snatches through the portholes, giving a thick sense of confusion and fear, but denying us the full sweep of the action. It’s here, too, that he cuts away much of the 1959 film’s three-and-a-half-hour runtime, leaving out the part where Judah saves a Roman consul from a watery grave and is assimilated back into high society.

Instead, Judah is washed up on a beach where Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocked wise-man (he voice-acts but otherwise is barely present) spots his potential for wrangling horses at high speed. Chariot racing is his business and he suggests to Judah that challenging Messala in the circus may be the best way to exact his revenge.

Underlying the plot, then as now, is the pull between love and hate, encapsulated by the fate of Jesus Christ. He is almost too human in the shape of Rodrigo Santoro, but that’s part of an overall drive by Bekmambetov to get down and dirty, telling the story with more grit. There is no gloss or heavenly glow, and he also plays down the crucifixion, when a miracle is visited on Judah’s mother and sister. But in upping the realism he forgets that the religiosity of William Wyler’s film was a key part of its power and another reason why, in our more secular times, Ben-Hur was probably best left alone.

Revenge, when it finally comes, doesn’t taste so sweet for the spiritually enlightened – and that’s as it should be – although the very last scenes push too hard for a neat resolution. Kebbell aims to bring another dimension to Messala, but Bekmambetov’s frenetic approach doesn’t allow too much room for that. Ironically, Wyler’s film is edgier and more truthful in the way it puts an end to the feud.

For those who have never tuned in to see Charlton Heston in his most iconic role on any given bank holiday, it’s academic. There is a good story here – albeit stripped to the bone – and the handling of the chariot race, with the ripping of wheels, thundering of hooves and sheer brutality of men being thrown to their deaths, is still impressive to watch (though less of a feat with CGI). Huston follows bravely in Heston’s footsteps to hold it all together, but it’s a burden no actor should have had to bear.

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Ben-Hur is in cinemas from Wednesday 7 September