When you remake Ben-Hur (again), there’s bound to be comparisons made, especially to its most famous iteration in 1959 which won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But this “Ben-Hur” focuses more on bringing the 1880 Lew Wallace novel to the big screen than on reinventing the wheel.
Screenwriters Keith Clarke (“The Way Back”) and John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) admittedly put revenge in the foreground, but with forgiveness always in the background, tugging at the heart of our titular hero played by Jack Huston. The guts of the novel are there, with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) taking on a prominent, if sporadic role. Director Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) must have had to make some tough choices, as both the beginning and ending of the film feel abbreviated; as though there were more story there to tell, but not enough time in which to tell it even at 124 minutes.
Nobleman Judah Ben-Hur goes from scrappy brotherhood with adopted sibling Messala (Toby Kebbell) to frenemy over the course of a single conversation, and it’s basically to the roman galleys from there in quick succession. Likewise, the ending hurries through redemption so effortless and inclusive it’s unbelievable, especially after such heartrless treatment.
But between these two comparatively weak bookends is a strong build-up to the iconic chariot confrontation. A preference on practical effects over CGI helps action sequences hit as hard as a PG-13 rating will allow. The filmmakers wisely change the circumstances under which Judah is wrongly accused of sedition, as well as discarding his befriending his slave ship’s commander in favor of creating Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a character who not only teaches Judah to quickly become a competitive charioteer, but allows Freeman to once again provide some narration, as a fair amount of exposition is needed early on.
“Ben-Hur” may suffer from comparisons and a lackluster and abbreviated setup and payoff, but it concentrates on telling a character-driven tale of forgiveness rather than simply spinning a CGI-heavy yarn on revenge. And although it may miss the mark, in this day and age, I can appreciate its aim, and taking a chance to tell something a bit different.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)
Writing Credits: Lew Wallace (based on the novel by), Keith R. Clarke (screenplay) and John Ridley (screenplay)