There is a timely message of tolerance and forgiveness, but Ben-Hur is a poorly-constructed historical epic that fails to leave an impact.
Ben-Hur tells the story of Jerusalem prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adoptive brother, the Roman Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). Growing up together, the two have formed a strong bond, with their parents hoping their relationship could bridge the two peoples together. However, Messala cannot shake the feeling that he doesn't truly belong with the Ben-Hur family (in part, due to their different religious beliefs) and leaves one night to join the Roman army and see the world he's only dreamed of.
Three years later, Messala returns to Jerusalem as a high-ranking officer and asks Judah for help in dealing with the zealots who strongly oppose the Roman Empire's reign of oppression. Unbeknownst to Messala, Judah is secretly housing one of them in his home. This has life altering consequences for Judah when that zealot attempts to assassinate the Roman general Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) as the army marches its way through Jerusalem. Taking responsibility for the attack, Judah is sentenced to become a galley slave, while his mother and sister (Ayelet Zurer and Sofia Black D'Elia) are taken away to a presumed death. After five years as a slave, Judah escapes when his ship is destroyed, and he encounters the sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who agrees to help Judah get his revenge by training him to race Messala at the Roman circus.
The 2016 version of Ben-Hur is the fifth adaptation of the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ; most famously, the 1959 edition starring Charlton Heston won a record 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. This modern take has been billed as a "reimagining" that aims to stay more true to the faith-based source material. There is a timely message of tolerance and forgiveness, but Ben-Hur is a poorly-constructed historical epic that fails to leave an impact.
One of the weakest elements of the film is the screenplay by Keith R. Clarke (The Way Back) and Oscar-winner John Ridley (12 Years A Slave). Just about all of the characters are thin sketches that fit basic archetypes in the story (i.e. Ilderim is the wise mentor) without receiving much development. In particular, the first act is rushed and fails to definitively establish the individuals and their dynamics, which prevents the various arcs from being as powerful as they could have been. The script could have benefitted from giving the narrative more time to breathe to flesh out the characters (most notably Judah and Messala) and make them more sympathetic. Clarke and Ridley rely heavily on formula without adding much to mix things up. Unlike the 1959 film, the Christianity element from the novel has a prominent role (Judah has interactions with Jesus), which is a double-edged sword. This aspect is a nice way of conveying the themes, but it comes across as too heavy-handed.
Due to the bare bones script, the cast doesn't have much to work with. Most of the actors (Freeman and Kebbell especially) are solid in their parts, but Ben-Hur lacks a truly mesmerizing performance. He has had good turns in the past (see: Boardwalk Empire), but Huston seems miscast as Judah. He lacks the leading man charisma that is necessary to carry a historical epic such as this and mostly comes across as a blank slate. Having played villainous roles before in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Fantastic Four, Kebbell is in his wheelhouse as Messala, who is the film's most interesting character. That said, Messala suffers from the screenplay's shortcomings and Kebbell can only do so much to elevate the material. Others, such as Nazanin Boniadi as Judah's wife Esther, barely register and have little to contribute.
Ben-Hur also suffers on a technical level. Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and director of photography Oliver Wood incorporate a healthy amount of extreme closeups and shaky cam for the set pieces, making the action borderline incomprehensible at times. In addition, there are sections of the film (including a lengthy sequence in Judah's ship) that are shrouded in darkness and difficult to fully make out. The editing team of Dody Dorn, Richard Francis-Bruce, and Bob Murawski rely on quick cuts (particularly during the climactic chariot race), which only compounds the issues of the poor cinematography. Featuring more sweeping long shots would have given audiences a better chance to fully appreciate the work put into the grand finale (a majority of which was done practically) and help underscore a sense of awe and wonder.
The film is playing in 3D and IMAX 3D, and viewers interested in seeing Ben-Hur in the theater would be advised to stay away from the premium format if possible. As stated earlier, there are large chunks of the movie shot in darkness, and 3D only serves to exacerbate the dimly lit scenes. Save for a few point-of-view images, there's very little that benefits from the technology to make Ben-Hur a more immersive experience. While portions of the chariot race (which is set during a sunny day) may look visually impressive on a larger screen, the movie as a whole does not warrant the extra cost for such a ticket.
In the end Ben-Hur is a poorly-constructed film that doesn't have much to offer moviegoers. Its well-intentioned lessons of reconciliation and tolerance are undercut by a lacking script, run-of-the-mill performances, and an ill-conceived approach behind the camera. Anyone curious to see what a new spin on the classic tale looks like can wait for home media, and those who were on the fence can stay away. Ben-Hur doesn't have much of merit, which makes it a hard film to recommend.
Ben-Hur is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 124 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.
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